Great article in the Wall Street Journal! Very relevant to many discussions we've had here. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142 ... lenews_wsj
Worst Comic Book Ever!
While superheroes dominate the box office, the medium that birthed them has moved on.
By TIM MARCHMAN
In its first three weeks in domestic theaters, "The Avengers" has taken in almost half a billion dollars. According to the calculations of people who care about such things, this has it on pace to become one of the three highest grossing movies ever. Soon, Hollywoodland will inflict on the world new Spider-Man and Batman films that might make even more money than "The Avengers." Casting directors are likely working on the problem of who might fit into the costumes of such lesser-known champions of virtue as Matter-Eater Lad and Squirrel Girl.
You might thus assume that superhero comics, the original properties on which these franchises are built, are in flush times. They aren't. The upper limit on sales of a superhero comic book these days is about 230,000; just two or three series routinely break into six digits. Twenty years ago, during the comic industry's brief Dutch-tulip phase, hot issues of "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" sold millions.
Where this audience went is a bit of a puzzle, especially because comics, broadly speaking, are respectable as never before. Good cartoonists' books are reviewed in the quality papers and nestled on readers' shelves next to comic-book-inspired novels by Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. Even the University of Chicago, where fun goes to die, recently held a three-day conference to which it invited brilliant cartoonists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes.
If no cultural barrier prevents a public that clearly loves its superheroes from picking up a new "Avengers" comic, why don't more people do so? The main reasons are obvious: It is for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, and it is clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology.
In a much hyped series from Marvel Comics this summer, for example, the Avengers fight the X-Men for inscrutable reasons having to do with a mysterious planet-devouring cosmic force, a plot that makes no sense to anyone not familiar with ancient Marvel epics like "The Dark Phoenix Saga." The story is told in two titles, one called "Avengers vs. X-Men," with a big "AvX" logo on the front, and the other called "AvX," with a big "Avengers vs. X-Men" logo on the front, presumably so you can keep them straight.
The people who produce superhero comics have given up on the mass audience, and it in turn has given up on them. Meanwhile, the ablest creators have abandoned mainline superhero comics to mediocrity. "Leaping Tall Buildings," a collection of brief and beautifully illustrated profiles of comic-book artists, intends to celebrate the form—and does—but along the way reveals the forces that have caused its most iconic titles to rot.
This is a living history, tracing those forces back to the sweatshops in which the superhero was created. One figure from the Golden Age of comics interviewed in "Leaping Tall Buildings" is the still-active artist Joe Kubert, who was 12 when he broke into the field in the 1940s and trained under Will Eisner, the Orson Welles-like figure for whom the legendary Jack Kirby, Batman creator Bob Kane and so many others worked.
Connecting Eisner to today's "Iron Man" comics, the book incidentally reveals how the industry's attitude toward artists and writers through most of its history led to its current woes. Infamously, in 1938 Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were paid $130—the equivalent of a few thousand dollars today—for the rights to the character of Superman. It took a public shaming campaign, led by a new generation of artists nearly 40 years later, to secure modest pensions for the two.
A lack of options kept artists and writers at the wheel, and the crude, pulp-derived fantasies born from the Depression were distilled into a pop mythology that bore something like the relation to the fine arts that rock music did to classical forms. Jack Kirby, the Marvel artist who in the 1960s did more than anyone else to establish the visual grammar and vocabulary of superhero comics and to create the Avengers, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, spent much of his later life caught up in a series of shockingly petty lawsuits with Marvel, a company built almost entirely on his work.
The dynamic, if anything, got worse with time. Alan Moore, the influential British writer who more or less revitalized DC Comics in the 1980s, claims that the company deprived him of his rights to the genre-defining classic, "Watchmen," that he created with illustrator Dave Gibbons. Conceived as a sort of deconstruction of the superhero genre, "Watchmen" derived much of its effect from the fact that, unlike the type of series it parodied, the series had a defined beginning and end—in fact, an apocalypse. None of this, however, has stopped DC from launching a spinoff over Mr. Moore's strenuous objections.
The first issues of "Before Watchmen" will be published next month. Among the writers working on it is former He-Man scripter J. Michael Straczynski, who once penned a comic in which Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil. (This is the rough equivalent of having Z-movie director Uwe Boll film a studio-funded prequel to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver.") DC is promoting the project with a "Watchmen" toaster, which will allow you to burn the image of Ayn Rand-inspired vigilante Rorschach into your sourdough.
Mr. Moore today refuses to work for the big comic-book publishers, and Marvel and DC's deplorable treatment of authors and artists has driven others away as well. In the 1980s and 1990s, a long-nascent creators-rights movement began to attract the best and most popular talents to smaller, more agile publishers, who allowed them to retain the rights to their creations. Unlike their older peers—Mr. Kubert will be providing art for "Before Watchmen"—two younger generations have learned the lessons of Siegel, Shuster, Kirby and so many others. They decline to invent anything new for the big houses, and prefer to control their own better concepts.
Take writer Robert Kirkman, not profiled here though he should have been. At influential boutique house Image, he publishes the creator-owned "Walking Dead," a gleefully deranged and imaginative comic that redefined the stale zombie concept, spun off into a successful television show and sells to lots of people who don't normally read comics at all. During a brief stint at Marvel—he now avoids the big houses—he rewrote old "X-Men" comics and zombified the Marvel heroes rather than doing something new. This made good sense: Why sign over the rights to original ideas when he could keep them for himself?
Marvel and DC probably wouldn't have wanted anything new anyway. Judging by "Before Watchmen" and "Avengers vs. X-Men," their notions of new ideas involve sequels to comics that came out when New York Mets announcer Keith Hernandez was a perennial MVP candidate.
For an industry that feeds on its own past to go 20 years without fresh characters or concepts is death. The most telling sections in "Leaping Tall Buildings" are thus those written about industry powers like Brian Michael Bendis, Joe Quesada, Grant Morrison and Dan DiDio. These are the men most responsible for the failure of the big publishers to take advantage of the public's obvious fascination with men in capes.
But by far the most charming and enjoyable parts of the book are those that present substantive artists like Mr. Ware, Jaime Hernandez ("Love and Rockets") and Jeffrey Brown ("Unlikely"). By a quirk of the comics industry, artists like these, who deal with the stuff of real life and whose work is treasured by people who read books that have spines, are tagged as "alternative" or "underground." It's amusing to see how, in "Leaping Tall Buildings," such artists come off as normal, thoughtful people, while contemporary superhero creators tend to come off as pretentious autodidacts or failed cult leaders. If anything is "underground," it's their insular, indecipherable comics.
What's amusing is also sad. As Mr. Ware says, cartooning "has something fundamental to do with a constant sort of revision of ourselves and our lives, the same sort of resorting and refiling that goes on when we're dreaming." The superhero comic has for decades been the fixed point around which this vital American art has revolved. It may be exhausted, but it deserves better than to be reduced to a parody of a parody of itself.
—Mr. Marchman, most recently a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, can be followed on Twitter @timmarchman.