Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Survival of Comic Books

Recently I read an article in the newspaper lamenting the decline in popularity of comic books. Without beating around the bush the author saw fit to blame it all on corporate greed. He described how National Periodicals (later DC Comics) shafted Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, how Marvel Comics shafted its father, Stan Lee (or was it how Marvel Comics and Stan Lee shafted Jack Kirby, his most important collaborator?).

It basically translates to this: corporations such as Marvel and DC Comics too often shortchange the talent responsible for creating their cash cow characters, thereby killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

Although this is certainly one of the more valid opinions that's been offered as to the decline of comic books (and there have been quite a few), I still think it's a fairly simplistic one, because it's not entirely accurate.

These days, comic book creators, specifically writers and artists, are treasured assets by the companies that employ them. The two market leaders, Marvel and DC Comics, are currently engaged in what is known as an "exclusives war" where basically each company tries to outbid the other for the services of any given artist and writer. It's a more sanitized version of the network war going on over here, although the output of either company isn't trashy soap operas (thank God Scott Lobdell is no longer writing X-men).

I will concede that the present comic book creators' atmosphere is not exactly conducive to the creation of new characters, and that could result in another Image-like breakaway a few years down the line, but DC has long encouraged creator-owned stuff, whether or not it's superhero-oriented, and even Marvel, who got burned a long time ago when most of the creator owned stuff it published was carted off by the creators to other publishers like Dark Horse, Image and yes, DC/Vertigo, is trying its best to keep its top flight talent like Bendis and Straczynski happy by publishing their creator-owned books.

In my humble opinion, I think the fault lies with the ever-fickle public. I realize that I am at serious risk of being just as simplistic as the columnist with whom I disagree, but I'd like to give a brief rundown of history.

Comic books sold hundreds of thousands of copies on a regular basis as recently as the eighties. In the 90s things came to a head with Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man and then Chris Claremont and Jim Lee's X-Men, the former selling three million copies and the latter selling eight million, a record which has yet to be equalled, according to everyone in the industry. It was all downhill from there. A guy I knew in college predicted in 1994 that the comics market would crash, as it indeed did scarcely two years later. Damn.

Personally I think the fall of the comic book was not entirely the fault of the corporations that pushed them, but also of the bandwagon schmucks that speculated on them. People didn't buy comics because they liked the story or the art but because they were seeing, hearing and smelling green as the values of the books skyrocketed. I confess to sometimes being guilty of thinking, as I am buying a book, how much it will one day be worth, but I don't have a long box full of multiple copies of X-Men #1 and Spider-Man #1.

The corporations, pieces of crap that they might have been, were largely motivated by the fact that comics were selling in obscene quantities. They wanted to respond to that demand and so they dragged every Tom, Dick and Harry they could find to write and draw a comic book. Talent didn't really matter because there was a widespread belief that the product could sell itself. And so the market was flooded with trash, largely, I am ashamed to admit, from Marvel.
The guys that founded companies like Image actually had the right idea, because to them it became about the love for the craft of comics. The only problem was that all of these guys were capable artists, but none of them was really a capable writer, and as a result the stuff they churned out was by and large self-indulgent crap that floundered along with every other comic book out there when the crash hit. Todd McFarlane proved to be the one enduring Image creator, until he seemingly got possessed by the corporate greed he had claimed to abhor, selling rights to his creation without really seeming to give a crap about how well it translated to other media (anyone remember the Spawn movie)?

But you know what? If people treated comic books like legitimate art forms, then the crash wouldn't have been as resounding, and even the greedy bastard corporations would have realized that people pay for quality, not for hipness. It's so weird: hundreds of millions of people the world over flocked to see "Spider-Man" but the character's flagship book, Amazing Spider-Man, only sells about 100,000 copies a month. And that's supposed to be an IMPRESSIVE figure. JK Rowling would hang herself if her next Harry Potter book sold like that and yet...the Spider-Man movies average almost a hundred and fifty million dollars more than Harry Potter? Why is it cool to see a movie based on a comic book character but not cool to read the comic books from which the characters were drawn?

I think people really, really need to get over the notion that comic books are just for kids. Kids alone would not have made "Spider-Man" over 800 million dollars the world over. There's just something wrong here, and I really don't know what can be done about it.

These days, both Marvel and DC are trying to toe a fine line...of putting out a product that is mature enough to transcend the average book reader's aversion to comics, and yet grounded enough in superhero mythology to continue to appeal to their loyal readers. One can only hope they succeed...


Alexander Payne

Although ironically enough, his latest film, "Sideways" is adapted from a novel, and although the scope of his storytelling technique supposedly harkens back to the films of old, Payne provides such freshness in the way he offers up his stories that we wouldn't really know that.

Alfonoso Cuaron

Yes, I really enjoyed Y Tu Mama Tambien, even though I only saw it on a bootleg VCD (not even a DVD). It was really ballsy (no pun intended) storytelling, given that Cuaron was simply unafraid of any sexual taboos. It wasn't just an excuse for a bunch of kids to get naked. Anyone who in this day and age can put that much sex in a movie and still tell a rather compelling story deserves some kind of special mention.

...and suddenly, the well runs dry.

You know what? Frankly I'm not exposed to enough cinema, and am basically yet another (occasionally) willing victim of the unstoppable machine that is Hollywood. Maybe it's my age showing, but I find myself craving something new, or at least a new way to present something old, and the fact that it hasn't happened for so long is driving me nuts.

I mean, this is the first time I've found myself genuinely indifferent to the thought of who will win this year's Best Picture Oscar, mainly because I know my personal favorite "Sideways" is not likely to bag the award.

It is sad that the list of original filmmakers I can think of is as short as it is (although I'm sure I could think of more were I so inclined). There are talented filmmakers scattered all around the world, and not just in the traditional Hollywood nooks. They're all over Europe, Asia, and even Africa, just waiting for audiences to soak up their stuff. It's just sad that a lot of them never really get the validation they deserve from worldwide audiences.