I love Marvel & DC super-hero comics. This must be understood or nothing good can come of what I am about to say about them. I learned to read with Superman comics, have collected seriously for three decades and talk about Booster Gold far too much for anyone’s liking.
Monthly super-hero comics are good. But they are rarely great.
And really they aren’t supposed to be. The monthly super-hero comic, like the episode of a network TV program, is meant to be enjoyable, worth your investment and enough of a hook to bring you back next week.
Monthly super-heroes are not the creative centre of comics and they probably haven’t been so in your lifetime. I detest the sentiment that “things used to be better” because they weren’t. We sit now at the most creative, dynamic and exciting time for the art form of comics. Creators can get their work unfiltered in front of an unlimited audience for the cost of a domain name and a good-quality scanner. Underground creators of the 60s would faint if they saw the freedom of today.
Why then are super-hero comics still playing the same cycles they have for my entire life and probably longer? Yes DC rebooted, as they did many times before. And Marvel has been shuffling the members of X-Men, Avengers and Fantastic Four since long before I was a twinkle in my parents’ eyes. This isn’t pointing fingers at either of the Big 2. They both do what they do because ultimately it’s what they are supposed to do. They are making CSI: Gotham.
Monthly Comics are Episodic Network TV
- Must appeal to the broadest audience: This can’t be under-stated. For a Big 2 book to stay viable they have to ship around 15,000 copies (+/- a few thousand, the math depends on a variety of factors). Meanwhile a creator-owned book can be extremely successful at those numbers. Supergirl was a failure on CBS and a success on CW because expectations are very different at those networks.
- It isn’t “Going Somewhere”: One of the silliest complaints I hear about monthly super-hero comics is that the story isn’t “going anywhere.” No, of course it’s not. Big 2 comics are about creatively treading water. An observation I heard recently was that super-hero comics are perpetually the 1st and 2nd acts of a 3-act story. Take Age of Ultron for example.Act 1: exposition and inciting incident. Act 2: Rising Action. Act 3: Resolution. But what did we have in Age of Ultron? Acts 1 & 2 ticked along, but then Act 3 wrapped up a few threads and filled the rest of issue 12 with a handful of new Act 1’s. In the same way, any given episode of CSI or Modern Family is about having a compact structure that puts the pieces more or less back where you found them for the next writer the next week. Wash, rinse, repeat.
- Copy What Sells: CSI = Avengers = Law & Order = Batman = Star Trek = Justice League
- Don’t rock the boat: The days of “a very special episode of…” are long behind us for network TV. There is no incentive to tell serious or important stories in episodic television. Nor is there in monthly comics. Any writer for a super-hero comic is only borrowing the character for a while. They have a fence around what they can do with the character because ultimately there will be someone else who has to take their work and make the next Act 1 & 2 out of it.
- Too Many Cooks: The best television shows in history have all had one thing in common – a limited number of creators guiding the series. Called a Show Runner, these are the people who make sure a series has an overall trajectory and usually character development. Sorkin on West Wing, Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, JMS on Babyon 5, etc.The more notes from network, the more likely you are to get a watered-down product. The same is true for comics. These days there are people at Disney and WB who may never have opened a comic sending notes through the channels to creators.
- Who Signs Off?: The milquetoast of Agents of SHIELD should have been no surprise to anyone. Nothing risky of any sort will happen on that show. Safe, family-friendly and non-controversial. You are just as likely to see a story like Demon in a Bottle in an Iron Man comic today as you are to see a character from Big Bang Theory have a heroin addiction.
- Sweeps Week: A few times a year TV networks have their shows jump through hoops to grab the ratings during the coveted “sweeps week.” Good ratings equal good ad prices. Compare this to DC’s September event or Marvel’s infamous “a death every quarter.”
- Cable TV is “Written For The Trade”: More and more basic and paid cable shows are designed with single season arcs that tell a more-or-less complete story. This is great for binge-viewing on Netflix or waiting for DVD. Monthly super-hero books may break at even places for the purposes of trades, but they keep threads going to keep you hitting the store every Wednesday. Meanwhile creator-owned books are announcing pre-set arcs and series endings years in advance.
- Talent Is Disposable: Frank Darabont = JH Williams
You could use Blockbusters vs Indie film or music in much the same sort of analogy, but the forward momentum of monthly and episodic seems the most apt comparison.
An earlier version of this post was written for www.wetalkpodcasts.com