Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Matter Of Perspective

I stumbled across the Mascaras de TheKamisama blog this morning for the first time. What I found immediately interesting in his posts from the past week or so is that, as an experiment, he has plans for completely dropping out of the superhero comics market throughout 2008 and, perhaps more significantly, blogging about the experience. "So over the next two months I am going to start dropping a number of regular comics I get. All superhero genre books. The capes and spandex stuff. The genre that seems to make it's fans the most frustrated. I figure that if I took out all the negativity that this fan-dumb seems to cause, I might in turn become a happier person? If not, then anyone reading this will be able to enjoy the record of my decent into nerd madness."

What I find interesting in particular is that this is effectively a more formalized version of the same experiment I began earlier this year. For nearly the same reasons. Bottom line: superhero books aren't really enjoyable these days.

Now, obviously, that's a matter of personal taste and preference. Since there are well over 100,000 people in the U.S. buying superhero comics every month, there's clearly still a market for those books. But what I have to wonder is whether or not the anecdotal evidence of increasing disillusionment with marvel and DC is in fact evidence of a sea change of some sort, or if I just happen to be seeing patterns because of my own changed mindset/perspective.

Let's say you're at a party. Music going on in the background, lots of people talking and laughing about all sorts of topics. Aside from the people you're talking with at any given moment, the din becomes white noise for all intents and purposes. That is, until someone mentions your name. Your brain was able to isolate the sound of your name from the cacophony, despite the decibel levels being roughly equal. Your brain will naturally and automatically attune itself to things that are of particular interest to you.

With that in mind, then, is my perception that more people are questioning whether or not they should buy marvel and DC books a real change of some sort, or is it merely my attention focusing on like-minded individuals? Am I seeing a legitimate decline in message board traffic on some of the old superhero boards I used to visit, or am I misremembering older instances when traffic may have dropped?

I would like to think that my views aren't tainted that much, but somehow I doubt that's the case. Because I do take a look at monthly sales numbers which, even if they're not wholly accurate are at least somewhat quantifiable, indicate that sales are continuing to increase in year-over-year comparisons. Now, one could argue that a portion of that are due to gimmicks the larger publishers are resorting to (line-wide crossovers, for example) but that would really only be note-worthy if readers did NOT seem privvy to the fact that they were gimmicks. I don't think I've seen anyone who even claims to believe that all the "World War Hulk" extras were designed to be anything but ways to play off the hype of the main story.

Or, geez, how about writing out one of their oldest characters, only to bring back a new version of the character in an updated outfit? Captain America's the most recent victim, but haven't we already seen this with Batman (Azrael)? And Robin ("Death in the Family")? And Dr. Doom (Kristoff)? And Spider-Man (Clone Saga)? And... well, you get the idea. I remember thinking that the whole concept was trite back when they killed Superman. I mean, seriously -- they're going to permanently kill off one of their staple characters? I don't think so. Hell, marvel hasn't even been able to keep Bucky dead!

Honestly, I don't begrudge a company for using tricks like that. I don't begrudge them for the foil-holo-stamped-multiple-variation covers either. The publishers are/were simply responding to the tides of the market. So, provided they're upfront about it -- which marvel and DC, to their credit, are -- then the issue is really with the fanbase. Because for as much complaining and griping as you might see about "Oh, they ruined this character" or "They're just using this crossover as a way to suck more money from my wallet" the fans still buy it. They're acknowledging that their recognition of the situation by complaining, but they're also signifying their approval of it by laying down their three bucks per title every month.

It's an old trope any more, but the publishers are going to listen to the market. If you buy two zombie cover variants now, and you buy three zombie variants next month, and four zombie variants the month after that, it's a good bet that you'll buy at least a couple zombie variants the month after that. But if you didn't buy any zombie variant covers, and none of your friends bought zombie variants, it wouldn't take long for a publisher to realize that zombie covers aren't very profitable.

So, to TheKamisama and anyone else who's dropping superhero books in favor of something good, you have my support. I'll continue to make suggestions and recommendations from here, and hopefully expose you to something cool and/or different. I found very quickly that there's really a lot of good titles out there, and something for pretty much every taste. Let me know if there's any genres/themes/styles/oeuvres you're interested in, and I'll see if I can't point you in the right direction. Hey, maybe it'll help me find some new stuff, too!

5 comments:

Matt said...

Interesting observations, as usual. I have to say that, as an outside observer, it does kind of seem like Marvel at least is crossing some sort of threshold. Like the Marvel Universe toy may finally be getting damaged beyond repair. On the other hand, it's hard to convince myself that it hasn't appeared that way to others, many times over the years. So who knows.

As regards dropping superhero comics, on my part that largely just sort of happened. I got busy, I got preoccupied, I lost interest in this character or that story, I cut back spending on comics for a while and started waiting for collections... before I knew it I didn't really bother with the collections, either, and found myself trying to remember the last Marvel Comic that I'd purchased. (I've since bought a few in the last year, but by and large the MU is a strange place to me now; never really got into DC in the first place aside from Starman, which of course ended years ago.)

I can offer a parallel, of sorts, with music, however. Some years back (having concluded that I didn't want to support their actions with my money), I decided to quit buying music from the big labels or any member of the RIAA. When I first considered the idea, I was worried. Would it be too hard to give up the artists I was familiar with?

As it turned out, it was remarkably easy, for me at least. In fact it's been a very rewarding decision. I discovered that there's plenty of good independent rock and pop music, for one thing. But as time has gone by, I've also discovered all kinds of different styles and genres that I never tried out before. These days I really don't even invest that much effort in looking for new music, yet I've always got at least a few CDs on my list to buy.

I think it's much the same with comics. One really doesn't have to scratch the surface all that deeply to discover far more good, "non-mainstream," work than there is even time to keep up with.

In both cases, I think the key is the low production cost. Comics have been relatively inexpensive since the photocopier was invented, I suppose, and nowadays every new Mac ships with nifty sound tools; even better the internet does a lot to level the playing field for promotion and distribution. You can produce great work without requiring lots of money.

plok said...

I think it's possible we're just on the crest of the wave, Sean. The Big Two have jerked readers around in the past, but never to the extent that they have (well, particularly that one of them has) in the last year or two...and fatigue/disgust takes a while to set in, so it isn't last year's numbers that will tell any sort of tale, but next year's, and the year after that. You and I and the Kamisama guy are leaving, and we can't be all alone...so if the numbers are to keep going up, then for every one of us that slams the door behind us, two more have to come along and open it. Which is to say: the numbers of Big Two fans dissatisfied enough to become ex-fans may be small enough that you might a) miss 'em, or b) mistake 'em ...but every one that goes still has to be replaced anyway, and eventually somebody's going to run out of road. If a thousand people leave the fold, it may be only one percent of the comics-buying public...but it's still a thousand people.

Hey, maybe a clearer picture could be gotten from looking at sales numbers of smaller companies -- what's a thousand people to, say, Archaia? A lot, I'm guessing?

plok said...

Sean, you should have a regular feature! Something like, I don't know..."Warning: Comics May Be Habit-Breaking"?

Matthew J. Brady said...

I've been kind of making a gradual exit from superhero stuff over the last year or so, in favor of manga, indie comics, and the like. I still read some Marvel/DC stuff here and there, but the pickings have gotten very slim. Hell, I barely even keep up with what's going on any more; I used to read blog reviews and commentary every week eagerly, wanting to see what people had to say even if I wasn't reading the books, but I'm just not interested in Green Lantern fighting a yellow Anti-Monitor or Wolverine doing whatever the hell he does.

I still have a few books that I read, mostly because I'm interested in the writer or artist, but even those I've been mostly dropping monthly in order to wait for trades, and in some cases, I'm starting to wonder if even the trades are worth it. Do I want to spend $15-20 on a collection of, say, Powers, when I'll probably be more satisfied spending the money on a few volumes of Osamu Tezuka's Buddha? I dunno, we'll see how it goes, but with a few exceptions, I've pretty much joined this superhero exodus.

Anonymous said...

If you're only just now realizing there are good non-superhero comics out there, my comment would be - where have you been? There have been tons of great indie comics around for decades - and it's not like they can't co-exist with mainstream stuff.

Growing up, I was a huge Marvel junkie. Then in the early 1990s I started getting turned on to non-superhero stuff (Eightball, Maus, Cerebus, Grendel, Sandman, American Splendor, Concrete, etc). I snobbishly rejected the trite Marvel superhero comics that were formerly my bread and butter, and in the space of a year, stopped buying them altogether.

But now I'm older and wiser, and I realize that just because there's a wealth of great stuff outside of the insular world of superhero comics, doesn't mean I can't appreciate superhero comics for what they are. They are still some good writers doing interesting things at Marvel (Brubaker, Bendis, Ellis, Pak, etc). Of course, if I hadn't spent my time away from superhero comics, I might not be able to appreciate them the way I do.

I'm rambling, but my point is that just because your tastes are now outgrowing superhero comics doesn't mean they suddenly have a fundamental flaw. Maybe some time away from Marvel stuff will give you the perspective to enjoy both mainstream and non-mainstream stuff simultaneously.