The Thrill Is Gone

Well, its official: Marvel and DC have managed to ruin the really superb revival of mainstream comics that began a decade or so ago.  Following the “success” of the “best-selling graphic novel” about Superman’s death – and yes, those quotes should be read with much sarcasm, as they are self-given titles DC  uses to describe their marketing ploy that ended up being the economic nail-in-the-coffin for comic shops all over the U.S. and elsewhere (and if you don’t believe me, ask any comic shop owner how many times a week they get calls from people trying to sell their worthless Death of Superman comics, thinking they are valuable “collectables” as described on QVC and elsewhere when they bought them) – mainstream comics went dead, in terms of creative and economic viability. 

The only good thing that happened as a result of this was that, eventually, independant publishers began putting out stuff by really great creators.  And no, I’m not talking about Image comics (for the most part); I’m talking about Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, NBM, etc.  Independant comics unquestionably became the best stuff out there, and eventually some of those great creators managed to find themselves at the helm of some of the biggest titles put out by the big two publishers, Marvel and DC. 

   Just before that happened, I remember my mindset as a comic reader.  I would have bet you everything I owned that I would not be picking up an X-book, the Punisher, or any such nonsense in the following few years.  That period was probably the first time I almost stopped reading comics altogether since I first started reading them when I was a wee one.  In fact, for a while the only comic I read was Dave Sim’s Cerebus, perhaps one of the best, most important works of the past 25 years in comics.  It’s the Ulysses of the comic medium, still vastly underappreciated even today.  Then I found and fell in love with a comic called Optic Nerve, by Adrian Tomine (actually the only original piece of art I own is a page from Optic Nerve – though I would kill to have something by Sim), and Berlin by Jason Lutes.  Eightball and ACME followed, and shortly after I actually had a pull list again.  Granted, it was all stuff by indy publishers, with the exception of some Vertigo stuff, like Preacher; but still, I was going to comic shops regularly again, and with great pride I had no interest in the mainstream titles, as they were pretty much all crap.

  But then something wonderful happened.  Garth Ennis started writing Punisher; Grant frickin Morrison started writing Uncanny X-Men; Bendis started writing … well, half of everything at Marvel, namely Daredevil, perhaps the best the title has ever been (yeah, that does includes Frank Miller’s run), and a great title called Alias.  Hell, they even got James Sturm to write a 4-issue FF mini-series (which was amazing).  Over at DC, they had Darwyn Cooke doing Catwoman, Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker doing Gotham Central, one of the best titles DC had put out in years (not including Vertigo, which is DC’s saving grace, as they typically put out good books – even a bad Vertigo book is usually better than most mainstream books).  After a year or two, I found myself as geeked out in superheroes as I had been when I was a teen.  But they were good.  They were real good.  It was suddenly a great time to be reading comics. 

And they stayed that way for a few years – I even liked most of the Ultimate Marvel titles, as I’ve been a big Bendis fan since he was doing Jinx and Torso.  But the end had to be near, and it began in the form of a crappy mini-series called Identity Crisis

And so began a contest of one-upmanship between the editorial staff of DC and Marvel.  Now, I’ll give Marvel credit, they held out for a while, and they still have Ennis writing Punisher, and they’ve got Whedon doing Astonishing X-Men – and Brubaker’s Captain America has been really impressive.  But still – I could care less about Civil War and its aftermath; it was a mini-series that started out with potential, and ended up being almost the most horrible thing I had read in a long, long time.  DC doesn’t get off either, as Infinite Crisis was, in fact, the most horrible thing I had read in a long, long time.  And both companies started putting out more and more variants; more and more gimmicks.  In shortMarvel and DC gradually went back to putting out books for comic book collectors, not comic book readers, and that, my friends, is all the difference in the world. 

Not only do they harm themsleves in the long-run, they harm the market itself – as your average fanboy would rather buy all three variants of one mediocre comic, rather than do something bold like try out a book from the independant section, or just read something new period.  Typically, they don’t spend more just because there are five variants of a comic; they just buy the variants and nothing else.  Heaven forbid you not have duplicate issues of a comic that won’t get opened. 

Let me interject quickly and say that I’m not railing against collecting comics as a whole – but rather emphasizing my belief that the value of a comic comes first from its content – and I don’t mean a superhero cameo, or a death.  What I mean is that I can understand wanting to preserve something worth preserving, and I’m sorry, A Crisis of Infinite Civil Wars isn’t that.  If you don’t believe me, try selling your first-generation Image comics, or some old Valiant comics, or the previously-mentioned Death of Superman comics, and see how much you get offered. 

Anyway, my point is that the current state of both Marvel and DC makes me seriously wonder if the editors were sitting in a meeting and said, “Hey, remember all that stuff we did that turned out to be a bad idea about 10-15 years ago?  Let’s do it again!”  I seriously doubt if I can forgive Dennis O’Neal for letting Jason Todd come back, especially after he said, and I am quoting, “It would be a really sleazy stunt to bring him back.” 

Now, I’ll admit, once they revealed why Todd was acting so violent, it made sense, but still, if it were up to me he would have stayed in the ground – or more specifically, been in the ground at all.  It made more sense, and made for better characterization, for Batman to carry the guilt of a dead Robin.  And besides, predictably they couldn’t leave well enough alone, as Todd is now bumping into Monitors and shifting continuities as multiple Earths collapse and expand and whatever.  Really, DC has pretty much lost me altogether as far as its mainstream titles go; even the Batman titles have been questionable lately, and usually a bad issue of Batman is still a good read. 

Paul Dini’s Detective Comics has been lackluster, and when you read his comic writing it is apparent that he is much better writing for television; even Morrison’s Batman issues have been forgettable, certainly not up to par with what one would hope.  That being said, All Star Superman is excellent – but I hold a grudge against Quitely for not being able to keep a book on schedule, a quality that too many modern, even fabulous, artists like him just seem to dismiss.  Anyway, if there is any truth to the rumor about Bruce Wayne passing the mantle and becoming a New-God, well, then DC will have effectively ruined probably the best character of all time in superhero comics, proving they have forgotten who the character is supposed to be.  It is bad enough he is more of a superhero than a detective most of the time – but for him to just up and walk away from the thing he is supposed to do?  Well, that will be the end for me.  Hopefully it is a rumor and nothing more. 

As I said earlier, Vertigo usually does end up being the saving grace for DC – but with Y The Last Man ending (or ended, I suppose), I am left with only a handful of books from them to look forward to on a regular basis.  As far as Marvel: first of all, while I will reluctantly admit Daniel Way has done a decent job capturing the Punisher’s character as revived by Ennis, I wish they would keep him far away from superhero types.  In fact, I’d prefer if just Ennis wrote the one Punisher title, and they left it at that.  He got it so very, very right in his revival of that character; let him (and us) just enjoy it and leave the guys in tights and capes completely separate. 

Secondly, the Death of Captain America.  Hrm.  If they kill him, they should really kill him.  You know, “Gwen Stacy” kill him.  Let him become a legend, a myth, a thing of the past.  Let 24 years, not issues, go by before he comes back.  That way both his death and return actually matter and are actual landmarks, rather than selling points.  Marvel still has me for a few books besides Punisher, for now: Brubaker has done an impressive job of following Bendis’ Daredevil; I’m curious to see what Orson Scott Card does with Iron Man; Whedon – well, it’s Joss Whedon, writing X-Men, do I need to say more? 

To sum it up, the big two have effectively killed the resurrected giddy geeky fanboy who was buying numerous titles every Wednesday; it seems the modern-renaissance of mainstream comics has passed, and the market of the CGC-grading, mylar-weilding collector have returned.  It was fun while it lasted, and I can only hope that repeating old mistakes might lead to good times once more.  Until then, if then, at least I can count on other titles that have never let me down – Magnolia’s Hellboy and BPRD; Kirkman’s Walking Dead; Vaughn’s Ex Machina; David Mack, Darwyn Cooke, Chris Ware … creators making comics for readers, and not the almighty dollar.  Send me a memo when Steve Rogers comes back.  

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3 Responses to “The Thrill Is Gone”

  1. glundeen Says:

    Nice post. I agree with just about everything you ranted on there.

    The thing about the Marvel and DC characters is that they have to maintain the illusion of changing without actually being much different. It seems like these companies go through an almost natural ebb and flow, and it’s totally disappointing because you know they could do better. Look at what they’re doing to poor Spidey with all this “One More Day” crap – it’s an awful idea done in the name of love for the characters, love for a character that only exists in memory and back issues, and it’s nostalgia of the worst kind. I believe there’s a certain masochism in reading superhero comics – you know they’re going to fail you at some point. That Bruce Wayne as a New God idea is so completely awful, and yet you know it’ll set up Wayne’s triumphant return as Batman being exactly what he’s supposed to be. All that New Gods crap is a little too much to explain to anyone who’s not a complete comic geek, so they’ll soon render it invalid as soon as it’s convenient.

    I still buy Cap, Daredevil, Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Immortal Iron Fist without fail, but everything else usually gets avoided from Marvel these days, at least to own permamently. I’m not above reading New Avengers at Borders over a cup of coffee. I was never a huge DC guy, but after Infinite Crisis I know I could care less about the DC universe at large. I’m a sucker for a good Vertigo series, though, and I’m hoping their new big book is coming soon.

    Ed Brubaker is an example of how to do it right. Brubaker has done an awesome job with Captain America after killing him. It’s consistently one of my favorite titles, and managed to be excellent without the main character appearing once for months consecutively. The difference is that Ed has a plan, he knows where the story’s going and it’s got built-in pay-offs. I know it got a lot of media play and fueled the speculators again, but it’s not as bad as, say, randomly bringing back Marr-vell in the middle of an awful crossover event for no apparent reason at all.

  2. drobbins Says:

    Likewise, thanks for commenting in my blog. I put yours in my blog surfer, because it’s always nice to read interesting posts. I’ll have to check out Iron Fist. I’ve heard good things about it, but have yet to pick it up. And yes, the “One More Day” thing with Spidey does look very sketchy … I have to agree with you about there being a certain masochism in reading superhero books; I understand there does have to be a certain cyclical nature to the books, so that they can always have a “starting point” to go back to, but I was hoping that the Ultimate titles was a way to avoid that, or at least stretch it out more than usual. Has New Avengers been good still, post-Civil War? I read it up until that point, but then stopped – not because the title itself got bad, but I guess probably because I was afraid it would get that way. And yes, I totally agree on Brubaker’s Captain; literally, for the first time in my comics reading life, I consistantly liked the title. He is somehow able to take all the cheese factor out of Captain America and make him (and associated cast members) a character that was interesting to read. Lastly, I too am anxiously waiting on the next “big” Vertigo title; I am going to miss Y The Last Man the way I missed Sandman and The Preacher, and I hope they find a good solid successor soon. 100 Bullets is okay, but I have issues with Azzarello’s dialouge in that title – its way too forced and unnaturally ridden with cliche and “wit” (that being said, I really have enjoyed Loveless). I may be a bit biased because he’s a friend of mine, but I really like Jason Aaron’s Scalped – if you haven’t picked up I would recommend it. Anyway, thanks again for the interesting reading and the comments here – I’m sure I’ll be ranting about comics and literature again shortly.

  3. glundeen Says:

    “Iron Fist” is basically Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction trying to out-awesome each other, and easily the best new book Marvel’s put out since “Nextwave.”

    “New Avengers” has its moments, because it’s Bendis and he always finds a way to work in something of interest dialogue-wise, but nothing really happens and there’s a huge “who cares” factor going on. Some of the character relationships are great, but it’s a clear example of the decompressed storytelling style that Marvel seems to have embraced where everything takes way too long, where incidents that would once have taken 3 panels now take 3 cinematic-style splash pages that ultimately rob the book of momentum. It looks cool but nothing happens. It’s the perfect bookstore read…

    …which is exactly what I should have done with “One More Day.” Pure awfulness distilled into comic book form.

    On a brighter note: I’ll check out “Scalped,” probably once it hits trade paperback. It looks very cool. I read “The Other Side” and loved it – I thought it was one of Vertigo’s best of 2007, perhaps only rivaled by “Pride of Baghdad.” Jason Aaron’s work, from what I can tell, is something we need more of in the comics world.

    I’ve got you in my blog reader as well, so cheers and keep the posts coming.

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