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Eric: Seriously. Old *Jimmy Olsen* comics used to sell over seven hundred thousand issues a month. Not Superman -- *Jimmy Olsen.*

I was watching a show on the History Channel, called How William Shatner Changed the World. It was one of those shows that tracked the people who actually made things like ion propulsion drives for NASA unmanned spacecraft and the cellular telephone and had them saying "well, yeah. I was watching Star Trek and hey -- Data was listening to music on his computer so I went down to my job at Apple and then I wrote Quicktime and then we invented the iPod."

You know, a fluffy show, but fun. This one featured some of Shatner's trademark (for this decade) self-deprecating humor.

But... they made an interesting contention in this show.

See, Star Trek was low rated, but then snowballed. And was huge. And Star Trek: The Next Generation was even bigger. (And if you haven't been playing along at home... we're reaching the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation was as long ago as the original Star Trek was when TNG first came out. Feel old yet? But I digress.)

And then Deep Space Nine came out. Which was my favorite of the series. And it did okay... but it was significantly lower rated than Next Generation which was on at the same time.

And then Voyager was lower rated still.

And then Enterprise was lower rated enough that it tanked.

We all know these things. And we all know the justifications. "People were burned out on Star Trek. Competition from cable and the internet killed them." Et cetera. But that's not what they were saying on here.

No, their contention -- and it was a throwaway -- was simple. Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were Roddenberry's vision of a future where humanity's problems were solved and technology was a good thing that made life a paradise and allowed humanity, who had matured, grown together and embraced that paradise, to develop themselves and explore the galaxy. Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise were darker shows where there were interpersonal conflicts between the crew, a more "realistic" approach to technology (which often failed) was adopted, and there were universal wars, terrorism, and lots of bad things and tense moments. And the millions of people who loved Next Generation didn't love these darker shows in such great numbers, despite their critical acclaim (the critics loved Deep Space Nine -- and so, for that matter did I). They loved the overall sense of optimism that Roddenberry had brought and people like Braga, Berman, and Behr eschewed as hokey.

Now, I don't know if this is right or not. I don't have demographics or interviews or statistical data. But it was an interesting contention for me, because it goes hand in hand with where I think comic books are dying.

See, comics used to be bright. They were optimistic. The good guys were good guys. The bad guys were bad guys. And the good guys eventually won. This was true at DC, where generally the heroes were stalwart and upright, and this was true at Marvel where the heroes were flawed and had problems. But it was still true.

Over the last several decades, comics have "grown up." They've become more realistic. And we ultimately had things like Zero Hour and Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and Civil War. And some of those series have been popular and everything, but comic books have been in major decline. The most popular books today get the kinds of numbers that middle of the road-to-unpopular books got in the seventies (and let's not even think about the forties or fifties. Superman used to sell many millions of issues a month.) Hell, over on Mister Kitty's Stupid Comics site (which is always good fun), an entire essay was devoted to pointing out that back when comics were stupid they vastly outsold the most popular comics of today. Even Little Dot.

And I've wondered for some time when the comic book companies became ashamed of superheroes. When did Realism, and "secret identities are bad" and "goofy heroes like Ralph and Sue Dibney need to die" and "the government needs to regulate all super heroes in a clear nod to Guantanamo Bay" and "hey, let's show Hank Pym immediately after employing the potential kinky sex acts that shrinking your body to the size of a dildo imply on his ex wife and former abuse victim Janet in our flagship team comic!" take the place of "Captain America beats up Hydra so they can't conquer the world" and "Iron Man is a good guy who fights bad people who want to take over the world."

I mean... what if the William Shatner documentary was right? What if the reason Enterprise tanked was because they'd lost the clear, clean message of the original series and Next Generation. What if the reason comic books are a niche item (and Manga outsells them in bookstores) is people liked the clear cut good versus evil stuff more than the 'popular' depressing 'realistic' stuff?

It would explain a lot, wouldn't it?

Posted by Eric Burns-White at March 6, 2007 8:04 PM


Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 8:23 PM

And here I was, thinking that it was because comic books are now 3 dollars a pop. I always wait for the trade paperback now, just because it's more cost-efficient and better quality. But yeah, you may have a point. Still, with movies doing as good as they are, the companies aren't going anywhere, and they have a chance to gain their audience back. Maybe they could give out teaser copies of Ultimate Spider-Man at select showings of Spiderman 3. Yeah, it can get dark, but there's something about Mark Bagley's art style that says "classic comic" to me.

Also, I really hope that's not Ultimates 2 you're talking about with Hank Pym. That potential visual is making me debate whether or not to buy the next Ultimates TPB.

Comment from: LurkerWithout [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 8:25 PM

Fuck yeah. Though Doug has a point with the increased cost. On the other hand, the kids who aren't buying comics ARE buying 60 dollar video games and what not...

Comment from: Vincent Avatar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 8:36 PM

You know, it's funny, but a few days ago on my blog (helpfully linked to my name), I was musing as to why I found Bleach such a satisfying read when it followed the Dragonball Z formula of fight enemy, get more powerful, fight more powerful enemy, lose, get more powerful, rematch, win, rinse, repeat--I hate DBZ and find it boring, but I couldn't stop reading Bleach until I literally ran out of Bleach to read. And then I figured it out.

The heroes are heroes. They fight for their friends, their families, and because they are doing the Right Thing and stopping the Bad Guys. The real world is depressing and dark enough; sometimes I (and, I think, other people) just want to read about a hero.

Comment from: Imaria [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 8:49 PM

I have had this discussion before; the problem is that people want the simplicity, but are no longer willing to suspend their disbelief enough to accept a simple "good vs. evil" plotline anymore.

There needs to be a refresh of optimism before that kind of escape is successful. In comparison, look at the rise of video games. Where the escape was once one of seeing good triumph by divine right, now people are taking escape in picking up the torch themselves. It is the feeling of control that has become the escape, rather than the victory.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 9:00 PM

I'm referring to the Avengers, not the Ultimates. ;)

Comment from: Nentuaby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 9:13 PM

Interesting thesis, but I'm not sure the data backs it up. It's not like they quit selling the goofy, optimistic comics overnight. They certainly didn't pull them from the market while there was still a market to pull them from (as the CCA would remind us, this is a capitalist country), and they didn't "angst up" all of them either.

What actually happened is most of the series that didn't go realistic tanked into the ground at some point. Even now, the big publishing houses run some throwback titles that... Well, scrape by, which is a fairly good indication there's something more at work than a dissatisfaction with the new way of doing things.

Personally, I think it's just that the more realistic style really IS what the modern comic audience wants, but it's harder to do. In terms of what it demands from a writer, "Captain America beats up the Bad Guys because they're Bad Guys and he's a Good Guy" is almost trivial. "Captain America struggles through a possibly losing war and must win through despite complex, gnawing psychological warfare by a clever, morally gray opponent" is work. Not every writer can do it. Not a very big percentage, even.

Hence, higher reader expectations and a harder target to hit mean a lot more work falling short. The space gets clogged by work put out by writers who only get that the audience wants Gritty, and don't understand how to make that happen beside gratuitously torturing protagonists and turning all the women into anatomically bizarre nymphomaniacs.

So, where before we had general mediocrity you started getting diamonds. Nobody wanted the old pap anymore after they'd seen them, so everyone had to start striving for those diamonds... And ended up producing so much utter *crap* that the industry choked on it. Does that mean going back to the status quo ante would help? No, because there's no taking back the diamonds.

Comment from: Daven [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 9:22 PM

Wow. Good thought. That's an interesting premise.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 9:33 PM

Mmm. I would argue against the premise that we lacked diamonds before. The Stupid Comics site focuses on lame books, but there were truly fantastic comics long before Watchmen.

However, I again note the relative sales and impact of current Manga versus Graphic Novels these days. Which is easily measured in terms of shelf space at any Barnes and Noble. A lot of Manga is, of course, very psychologically rich. But a lot of it is just plain fun, with that same level of good v. evil.

As I said. It's interesting to consider.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 9:39 PM

Speaking as one of the kids who bought videogames instead of comics, I can assure you that I never bought one for more than 20 dollars until I had a job that paid a significant amount. If anyone knows how to get a good deal, it's a kid on a crappy allowance. And comic books will last you an afternoon, whereas a videogame, if properly time-controlled, can last you a month, easy, and that's not including multiplayer. I'm happy with the upgrades in paper quality and visuals comic books have seen, but wonder as a consumer if the benefits still outweigh the costs. Having said that, I did make an exception to my "TPB Only" policy to buy every issue of Civil War as it came out. It was pretty good, but I can't say it was worth 21 dollars.

Comment from: Alexandra Erin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 9:47 PM

I don't know... I like realistic, dark, gritty, comics if they're done right. I like any comics if they're done right. I think the problem is that so often these days you get people who don't know how to do realistic or gritty trying to do it, and instead they end up with something like Ultimate "The madder Hulk gets, the hornier Hulk gets!" Hulk... or the Hank Pym scene you described... or any number of other, similar things that have cropped up in recent years.

Are those things really especially realistic? Or are they just ridiculous in an unaccustomed direction?

I think the Big Two both need to realize that the very concept of "edginess" implies the existence of a much larger, non-edgy mainstream for "the edge" to be the edge of... there will only be a very select group of authors and artists actually qualified to handle that edge at any given time, and that's fine.

Comment from: kirabug [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 10:20 PM

First, I should note that I don't read comic book comics. I have a smattering of angsty X-men titles (especially Wolverine and Gambit) around because I like angsty tortured souls who, when push comes to shove, do the right thing.

This may also explain why I love Final Fantasy titles.

And Heroes. The TV show, I mean. And even more, Firefly. (Which I just discovered this year after hearing y'all rave about it and we're halfway through the season DVDs and I just adore it and I'm sorry I'm late to the party.)

And it's why I did love House but it's wearing thin on me right now.

Now I should also mention that I have a TV problem, which simply put is that whatever I was watching TV about last is usually what I'll dream about that night, in gory nit-picking detail, which can be kind of bad if I'm stressed already. I don't like TV. But I still watch Heroes and Firefly. I don't mind dreaming about them.

When The Black Donnellys debuted we watched it, and it was good. And I had nightmares all night and when I woke up, I didn't feel good about myself. That show doesn't make me feel good about people. Why would I watch a show that makes me feel worse, even if it's good?

X Men used to make me feel good, even when things went wrong. If it can't do that anymore, if any comic can't, I have little time for it.

And as much as I dislike William Shatner, he was right.

Comment from: Elizabeth McCoy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 10:26 PM


I like manga for the pretty, for the subtext -- and sometimes maintext -- of complexities that are not _necessarily_ entirely spelled out, and for the characters... The fight scenes are _pretty_. Or WOO! It may just be that... superhero fights don't have a sensawunda anymore. Bleach and Avatar... Mmmmmmm. Those are some nice anime fight scenes. Kenshin has nice manga ones.

Also, manga doesn't have a zillion crossovers, or if it does, they're nearly inclusive; I think only Clamp is doing it (on this side of the translation, anyway), and only with themselves (Tsubasa and Xxxholic), and if you don't read both you're not really missing more than glancing references.

Anime that reinvisions itself all the time is also not so common, from what I can see. Okay, Tenchii... But there is only One True Tenchii, and It Is the original OAVs. Rar.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 10:41 PM

kirabug- it could be a lot worse. This last weekend, I began playing Civilization 4 in my head whenever I fell asleep. It was horrible; while my brain was trying to get some rest, my subconscious kept trying to remember what I was building in each city, and how many units I had, and what my relationship was with each rival civilization, and how many of their units I could see. This was late in the game, too, so I had a ton of cities and units.

Also, the computer kept cheating.

Comment from: Alexandra Erin [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 10:44 PM

Oh, I have to add, in reference to the original subject matter... as "optimistic" about technology as TOS and TNG supposedly were, there was something strange goign on:

"Mr. Emotionally Detached Science Officer, use those scanners we use all the time to scan that planet down below us, which a 20th century telescopic lens would be able to get clear pictures of from orbit."

"It's not working, sir."

"Increase scanner resolution!"

"And there we go."

What I want to know is, why didn't they ever use the right resolution the first time? Was it against some obscure Star Fleet reg? And if so, why did they bother to restrict the use of proper scanning resolutions (and phaser modulations, and shield harmonics, and transporter frequencies, and everything else) but just anybody was allowed to wander into the Holodeck... a device whose chief function, if the episodes in which it appears are any indication, is to malfunction horribly?


And if Voyager's main deflector dish could do everything they had it doing by the end of the series, why did they need the rest of the ship?

Comment from: John Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 10:55 PM

Y'know I remember back when I was 8 or 10 or something and my friend had a comic. It was an X-Men comic (probably Uncanny X-Men or Adjectiveless X-Men) and said I should read it that I would like it. I laughed and said there was no way in hell I was reading about some 60 year old character that was perfect and just fought bad guys because they were evil. I was of course referencing Superman. He tried to tell me that the X-Men were different, but I didn't believe him.

Now fast forward 15 years and I'm reading Batman, I'm reading Spider-Man, I'm reading Runaways and I'm reading The Uncanny X-Men. I'm still not reading Superman, although I have read John Byrne's Superman after CoIE's and enjoyed it quite a bit, but I am reading comics. I enjoyed House of M (in fact, the House of M event was one of the first things I read), I enjoyed Identity Crisis and I enjoyed Infinite Crisis.

Some people might want the superheroes from the 60s to return. Myself, I didn't want it when I was 8 and I certainly don't want it now.

Comment from: Prodigal [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 11:19 PM

It would, indeed, explain a lot. The sense of wonder just isn't there the way it used to be.

Comment from: Moe Lane [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 6, 2007 11:22 PM

Don't forget the modified tachyon burst. It wasn't a ST:TNG episode without a modified tachyon burst.

Comment from: cartoonlad [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 12:20 AM

One "strange error pops up not letting me sign in for comments on Firefox, so I'm doing this in IE to repost my LJ comment" later...

I had high hopes that when Earth-2 Superman and Earth-Prime Superboy were introduced in Infinite Crisis that DC was going to return to the era of "Remember when comics were fun?" The total party wipe of Earth-X's Freedom Fighters in the first issue was going to be the reminder of how gritty and dark the DC Universe was since, oh, the mid-80s, then BAM! It's Superboy! And Earth-2 Superman! And they're back to make everything right!

But no, it's just more of the same stuff that drove me away from DC and Marvel a long time ago.

Comment from: sqbr [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 1:00 AM

Various rambling thoughts on several comments follow!

Hmm. It's very hard to definitively answer a question like "Why don't people like comics any more?" without access to stats on the sort of broad demographics you won't find in a webcomics discussion community (or anywhere else I hang out, ie with my fellow nerds).

But speaking for myself, I like reading things which at least one (and preferably at least two) of: well written, thought provoking, or fun. I have never seen the appeal of badly written shallow depressing stuff, which is what a lot of comics seem to be nowadays. Given that serial comics (Unlike single-author, finite length graphic novels, which is what I mainly read) seem doomed to be crappily and inconsistently written a lot of the time, fun seems to be their only option (with the odd sideline into darker/deeper stories when a writer feels like it).

That said, I tend to also agree that these days it's harder to sell simple, wholesome stories of good versus evil. But that just means a veneer of slightly more complex characters and situations over the same core ethos. Look at shows like CSI, which have "gritty" aspects, lots of death and topical issues, but at the end of the day the good guys (who are, deep down, good) pretty much always catch the bad guy and justice prevails. This also applies to Heroes and cartoons like Teen Titans.

One difference between manga and comics noone seems to have mentioned is that afaict most manga are written by one writer (or group of writers like CLAMP), and while they can go on for an awfully long time, do generally have a beginning, (very drawn out) middle, and end. You feel that events mean something, and even if the story is extended beyond it's natural ending or time moves Very Slowly it does move and you don't have stuff like a character being a teenager for 50 years etc. Of course I'm biased, since I can't stand any fiction with a constant reset button, and clearly most of the tv viewing audience does not feel this way.

Finally: I realise you know the difference, but it's important to make a distinction between what the comics industry should do to be popular, and what they should do to be good. The problem is that currently they are neither :)

Comment from: Connor Moran [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 2:00 AM

I think that a more nuanced look at the history of comics will at least make the question more complicated, if not actually disprove the thesis. Comics have not undergone a steady decline in popularity since the 70s, nor have they gotten steadily darker. Superhero comics haven't even always been the most popular. After World War II, crime, horror, and romance comics edged out superheroes who even then were seeming pretty tired and stale. These comics were perhaps not mature, but they certainly weren't light good-versus-evil fare. They lost popularity not becasue of a natural evolution, but because of censorship. Later, of course, came Marvel, who revitalized the dying superhero comic. And it's worth noting that while by todays standards, the early Marvel comics don't seem particularly nuanced, they were far more realistic and complicated in terms of their heroes than what came before. Read early Spider-man comics--he's far more interested in fame and fortune in those early days than he is in doing what's right. And don't forget that Gwen Stacy died in 1973--those '70s comics weren't always happy by any means.

It's also worth noting that superhero comics can be fun without being relentlessly happy-go-lucky. In my opinion, no comic in recent years has come closer to capturing the pure joy of silver age superhero comics than Robert Kirkman's Invincible. And yet that it tells stories of people who seem fairly real and to whom bad things--sometimes extremely bad thing--happen regularly.

It's a complicated question, no doubt.

Comment from: arscott [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 3:15 AM

The problem, as I see it, is that comic books were influenced by two different trends at roughly the same time:

First, the subject matter of the comics became darker--Less good vs. evil and more shades of grey. Second, the manner in which the stories were told became more sophisticated.

Consider "Watchmen" as an example: It's an incredibly dark work with lots of moral grey areas. But the story structure and the level of detail are also revolutionary.

What today's comic readers will no longer tolerate is the simple story structures of a bygone age. The first time superman appeared, we got his origin story in two pages. Now, it's rare to get it in as little as two issues. We want depth, and we want detail.

But that doesn't mean the stories have to be gritty. And that's why stuff like the Justice League cartoon is so appealing: They combine a depth of plot and characterization with a silver-age sentimentality where the heroes are ultimately heroic and the villians are ultimately villianous.

Comment from: quiller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 3:52 AM

This reminds me of why I disliked the first Tim Burton Batman movie. There was good acting in it, good special effects, good soundtrack and all that. But Batman crossed over that hero/vigilante line in it. Hundreds of people die because he was too late arriving in his plane to save him, and he gives them barely a thought. The only person he actually seems to save in the movie is his love interest, which seems more the role of a Don Juan than a superhero. And then he finishes it off by killing the Joker in cold blood. As a movie it is not bad, but as a superhero story it left me cold. I thought Batman Begins did a much better job of making a very human Batman, who has a hard edge, but doesn't stop being heroic.

Comment from: kamagurka [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 4:48 AM

Personally, the "bright optimistic" stuff can suck my socks, especially in comics. And Voyager and Enterprise weren't watched because the writers killed it. You can see how much people dig dark, gritty Sci-fi by looking at the numbers BSG is pulling in. Now I just need to figure out how DS9's low ratings fit into my theory and I can write my thesis.

Comment from: Annie Non [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 5:17 AM

If light, fun, gritless silver age style comics are too unsophisticated for a modern audience, how come Showcase Presents just doubled the number of volumes it puts out a month, and who is buying all those Marvel books that are often anything but essential?

Comment from: Tom Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 5:39 AM

I think there's actually something similar but different going on.

First and foremost, anyone saying that comics are aimed at kids hasn't been paying attention. Some are, but not many. Still, that never stopped 2000AD from selling massively across the demographic. We all know both parts of this bit, granted, but it's always worth restating.

Thus, the comic industry has slowly retooled to focus on the other market; teenagers and then adults. There's a perception that they like continuity. (And let's face it, a different Imaginary Story every month makes Jimmy Olsen not continuity's poster boy. But it also makes for a comic anyone can hop on to, which is presumably also why the clunky, concept-explicating title.)

So continuity develops, and becomes stronger, and stories begin to be constructed out of the baroque structure itself, filling in gaps rather than building on them in the traditional fashion. Fans who like their continuity think this is cool. No one else says anything because they just picked up the issue and got utterly, utterly lost. Further down the continuity trail we go!

And this leads ultimately to explanations. Taskmaster is introduced so we know where the goons come, because there sure is an inexhaustible supply. We see Damage Control emerge to keep New York relatively recognisable. What If explorations become popular. DC retools its setting, extracting itself from the perils of trying to pull some inspiration from the continuity-free era, and does it so badly it needs to do it again with Zero Hour. The same motivation drives 'Identity Crisis' and a number of similar stories that just, suddenly, add up to a grimmer universe, but the motivator is continuity, the motivator is that desperate desire to tie everything together.

This leaves question marks over two key points: The Ultimates and All-Star B&R. All I can say here is that I don't believe Mark Millar likes superheroes nearly as much as he likes messing with them (see the infamous quote from his Sequential Tart interview over The Authority) and that I honestly do believe that Frank Miller took 9/11 so badly that he maybe needs counselling these days.

Comment from: leons1701 [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 6:28 AM

Frank Miller's problems date to well before 9/11 and are largely self inflicted, according to to friends with some industry connections. But you're absolutely right about Mark Millar. But it does make for a good story, at least sometimes.

Comment from: Kaychsea [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 6:31 AM

Its a problem with fandom. As they grew older they wanted their comics to change with them, Marvel and DC both attempted introducing comic lines that would appeal to an older audience, darker and grimmer but the fannish wanted their heroes to do the same. The problem with this is that it cuts off the new young fans to whom the silver age approach appeals most.

There's also a problem with drama in the comic. Take Superman as an example. He is so powerful that in order to create drama the opponent has to be world threatening, have access to kryptonite or is able to undermine the man of steel psychologically. The first leads to an E.E. "Doc" Smith escalation of power, the second cliché and the third the grimmer, darker worlds that alienate fresh faces. Lex used to wander through all three in an attempt to keep him going.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 9:48 AM

Heh. What do you mean, "what if"?

Comment from: Grayson Towler [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 9:50 AM

I don't even buy the premise. This, for instance:

Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were Roddenberry's vision of a future where humanity's problems were solved and technology was a good thing that made life a paradise and allowed humanity, who had matured, grown together and embraced that paradise, to develop themselves and explore the galaxy.

This is hugely oversimplified. Think back to the original series. We had episodes where Spock was subjected to outright racism from the crew (especially the one where it was revealed he looked like "the enemy"). There was one where Kirk said that the best humanity could hope for was to not be killers today, at this moment, and hope they could keep it up tomorrow (kind of like the AA of serial murder). Sexism was still alive and well, as we saw in the episode where a woman swapped bodies with Kirk because she thought it was the only way to be captain. Human incompetence, weakness, fallibility... all these things took front and center on many episodes of Star Trek.

Further, the villains were not cardboard cutouts all the time. They were often complex and symapthetic, and you felt for them by the end. I could go into details here too, but I've geeked out enough here already.

I think this is more of a simple quality issue. DS9 is arguably the exception to the rule, but that show took about three years to get good. Voyager and Enterprise plain sucked. Now, quality doesn't always guarantee you success (see Firefly), but people do eventually get tired of having recycled crap shoveled at them. Even if it's attached to a name they love.

(This principle does not apply to soap operas.)

As for comics... I don't think the historical context is being presented accurately here. Comics saw a tremendous boom through the 80s and early 90s in a large part because of the growth of "dark" and "mature" titles. That's what turned comics into big business. The implosion of the comics market has very little to do with the tone of the stories.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 9:58 AM

Speaking of dark, gritty, realistic and likely to alienate more readers, search just about any major news website today for "Captain America". Whee.

Comment from: djcoffman [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 11:52 AM

Yeah, if the Captain America Death thing is a gimmick, it's probably a death nail for the comic book industry. I wrote about this more here: http://yirmumah.net/death-nail/

Comment from: william [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 12:02 PM

Eric, I refute you thusly: HEROES.

Now you can argue that one of the show's most defining aspects is how blatantly they treat good and evil, and that's true to a degree.

But there's still decent characterization, internal conflict and development.

For me the show has shed off everything I subconsciously hated about the superheroes/comics approach. (Also I'm a sucker for pre-planned Babylon 5 esque plotting.)

But the devil's advocate in me wants to blame it on the medium itself. Comic books are unwieldy.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 12:13 PM

Now you can argue that one of the show's most defining aspects is how blatantly they treat good and evil, and that's true to a degree.

But there's still decent characterization, internal conflict and development.

You don't refute me with that statement.

The Legion, under Shooter, Bates and (especially) Levitz had solid characterizations, conflict and development. But it also had idealism, hope, and a sense that as hard as things are... there is a reason to believe in these heroes as heroes.

Heroes has all of those things.

Civil War does not. Infinite Crisis does not. When they say "realistic," what they really mean is "despairing." What they really mean is "the good guys lose."

You don't refute me at all. You make my point. Heroes is good stuff. Justice League Unlimited was good stuff. Spider-Man 1 and 2 were good stuff. None of them failed to have solid characterization, conflict or development. But they all believed in their subject matter. They were all happy to be about heroes.

I wonder how happy the backers of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer were to have Mister Fantastic turned into a spineless (no pun intended) apologist for a rather ham-handed allegory for the vastly unpopular Bush Administration. I wonder how the financial backers of the Iron Man movie, committing millions of dollars, are going to be when the story grows and says that they've got the guy who was on the opposite side of a conflict that just shot Captain America in the head, at least thematically.

Heroes is brilliant, because you can believe in them. There's nothing left in the Marvel Universe to believe in.

Comment from: Sili [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 12:57 PM

Interestingly your thesis might be applied to Spirou & Fantasio. There was quite a fan outcry when Tome & Janry tried to take them into the 21st century some years ago, and as a result they were replaced as creators. I'm not the best judge, since I've been rather out of the loop since before then.

My impression, though, was that the indignation was voiced by 'old' fans. People who'd read the series almost since the golden age of Franquin (whose mantle T&J were seen to have taken up). Thus the resentment came from fans who disliked change. I don't know how new readers greeted it.

On a similar train of thought it might be worth considering if 'kids these days' read Tintin. That's certainly a series to have captured the minds of several generations, and which have tonnes of adult fans today. But would young people who've adjusted to a world that's shades of grey like the boy-scout goodness of Tintin?

Comment from: Vincent Avatar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 1:19 PM

[quote]On a similar train of thought it might be worth considering if 'kids these days' read Tintin. That's certainly a series to have captured the minds of several generations, and which have tonnes of adult fans today. But would young people who've adjusted to a world that's shades of grey like the boy-scout goodness of Tintin?[/quote]

Hey, hey, hey! Don't you be bringin' Tintin into this. I first read Tintin at my grandparent's house, because one of my uncles used to read it when he was a kid. Tintin is awesome, and I [i]am[/i] the younger generation.

People today seem to confuse "shades of grey" with "insurmountable despair and disilusionment, also violence and whores." Yep, put enough violence and whores in your comic and you don't need to worry about building a character that people will care about!

Comment from: Vincent Avatar [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 1:21 PM

Ha ha! I don't know how to code under Typekey!

Comment from: Doublemint [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 1:36 PM

quiller: BSG's ratings have been falling for some time, so much so it wasn't a given that it'd be renewed again (unlike the Stargates... well, at least Atlantis). So it's not the best example for selling dark & gritty Sci-fi. The big appeal is that, for the Scifi Channel, it gives them credibility and critical acclaim. But you are correct that the writing on Voyager and Enterprise helped kill the audience.

As for the decline of comics, I think it has more to do with other factors than grit. Comic shops are scary places. Comic books are expensive. And comic book companies just cater to an increasingly old fan base. Aside from books like Runaways and Invincible, there isn't a whole lot of superhero stuff that appeals to me anymore. Especially since the companies keep killing/rebooting the characters I liked so they can retool old Silver Age icons. Supergirl is now some bare midriff, up-skirt flashing sex kitten. Kyle Rayner is... whatever the hell they're calling him this year. And they rebooted the Legion. Again.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 2:31 PM

I wonder if comic book writers overestimate the wants of their readers and would-be readers (where television writers do the exact opposite) and if both were reversed, would it improve the sales and quality of television shows and comics books?

Comment from: Robotech_Master [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 2:49 PM

I never really read comics growing up because I just couldn't afford them. They were like the kiddie version of cigarettes—you just have to keep buying them and buying them.

But certainly, the things that I'm hearing about in comics today make me glad I never got hooked. Even if it's a what-if, Spiderman moaning, "Oh noes, I have killed MJ with my radioactive sperm!" just doesn't do it for me. (Although I do have to wonder whether that story was inspired by someone reading "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" around the time Superman Returns came out.)

Comment from: JackSlack [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 4:10 PM

Hold on, there's a second element to this, even within Eric's thesis, that I don't think has been addressed.

OK. Deep Space Nine was critically acclaimed as a darker, more realistic and compelling vision of the future for Star Trek. There's lots of folks who'd be down for that. But they weren't watching -- It was Star Trek, after all. They didn't bite on the original series and certainly not on that moralistic, silly Next Generation. The brand had been set. When they switched gambits, the 'new fans' never came because they recognised the name. The old fans left because this wasn't what they signed on for.

That's more or less "First and Ten" syndrome in a nutshell. They even did it by going darker.

It's not the going darker that's the problem. It's not the despairing realism. It's that the despairing realism has clearly come out of marketing issues, not story concerns.

But could it have? No, I don't think it could.

Superhero comics were creatures of formula. Bad guy emerges. He initially does damage, winning. Hero regroups, and trounces villain. Rinse, lather, repeat. A static pattern.

Here's the real problem at the heart of it: Superhero comics were limited. Good stories need a beginning, middle and end. Otherwise, you get soap opera and formula. You want these stupid plotlines to end? There's only one way to do it: End the constant magazine format that never ends, and do novels. Best of all would be novels that use new characters, new superhero concepts that allow for new possibilities. So that when a death comes, it doesn't scream "Marketing gimmick!"

The real issue is that the format either had two places to go: Commercial stagnation or creative stagnation.

Warren Ellis said it best:

"I should have been noble! Clean! Single! I didn't want to wake up in SoHo with twelve valiumed-up Thai rentboys and terrible stains on my tights! YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO TAKE THE DAMN PHOTOGRAPHS!

"I didn't want to find out that instead of getting my powers from a transcendant scientist-mentor, I was grown from the DNA of Aryan super-athletes and Hitler's personal sex midgets! I didn't even know Hitler had personal sex midgets!

"I liked my life! There was NOTHING WRONG WITH ME! I wasn't hip, I wasn't trendy, I wasn't edgy, and you know what? THAT WAS OKAY!

"I didn't need the split personalities, the nervous breakdown, the shift in sexual orientation, my life being a lie -- If you didn't want me, you should have just bloody ignored me!" -- "The Superhero", Planetary, Chapter 7.

And he's exactly right. We should have just bloody ignored him. Let him die. Give the possibility of a genuine revival instead of propping him up on life support.

And yes, that's me quoting a superhero comic. Fine. I accept the irony. But Planetary's not the bulk of superhero comics. Similarly, I like Heroes. But even so, it's a soap-operatic melodrama. It's not a revolution in any way. The only thing keeping it fresh are the new characters and basic scenario. Soon, it will fade.

Let's let Captain America die. (As noted in a later Snark.) Let all the superheroes die. I'm not saying let's kill them. If they produce interesting stuff, by all means, buy it. But don't buy it because you have some kind of loyalty to the character. If they produce crap, and let's be honest, of late they've mostly produced that, then let's let them die.

Or if we must keep propping them up, let's prop them up with new characters.

Comment from: Tom Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 4:23 PM

Paul - I'm not sure whether you're 'what do you mean, what if?' was aimed at me, but if so, I was referring to What If rather than 'what if' as a question - What If...? being a Marvel comic exploring alternate realities that sold pretty dang well.

Comment from: Fabricari [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 4:33 PM

Interesting article. Not that we should all ring back the Comic Code Authority, but it's something to think about.

The best way to evaluate your hypothesis is to compare books that ARE optimistic and compare their sales. How are the Bone graphic novels holding up compared to the latest X-men trades? I don't read enough comics to know about all the optimistic books out there, but that'd be where I'd start. What about Groo? Usagi Yojimbo? They haven't changed, but their numbers have slipped.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 4:41 PM

No, Tom, I was responding to Eric, before I'd read any comments.

Comment from: Tom Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 4:45 PM

Ah, cool. Just checking.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 4:47 PM

Ah! And Websnark fires up again right in the middle of the busiest week I've had in nearly a year. I swear, things are conspiring against me right now...

To some extent, I think the value issue is valid. I look at it this way - I can go out and pick up an amalgamated volume of manga from Borders for 8 to 10 bucks. The bare minimum I'm going to get out of that is the equivalent of five issues (Fruits Basket, which is strung out because TokyoPop knows it's so popular). So I'm getting a bare minimum of two bucks per issue for a comic - I'm just buying them in one burst. And there have been quite a few cases where I end up sinking less than a dollar per issue when I get a volume of manga.

And if you think the economics of scale are nutty here, you should see it in Japan. You can get an issue of Weekly Shonen Jump for 230 yen - around $2 depending on the exchange rate that day (and it's not that expensive to import - I know where to get it for $5). And you generally get roughly 20 comics in that one issue. Sure, the quality of the medium isn't the best, but you can't beat the price.

It's not that American comics are a bad deal, per se - but you have to admit, you can get a similar experience (at least in some ways) for much cheaper elsewhere.

Comment from: John Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 5:20 PM

Civil War does not. Infinite Crisis does not. When they say "realistic," what they really mean is "despairing." What they really mean is "the good guys lose."

DJ Coffman brings up a good point with the Death of Superman. That's the ultimate good guy loosing and it caused tons of people to flock to it. It would also be very interesting and telling if his contention, that it brought about the modern decline of comics, was true.

Also Infinite Crisis did have the good guys win. Superboy-Prime didn't collapse the universe. Batman considers killing Alexander Luthor and become what he despises, a murderer, and yet Wonder Woman, the person who was an outcast for killing someone, stopped Batman from doing so. Thus Batman won the moral victory, even if Alexander Luthor was able to escape.

The comic ends with Wonder Woman planning on going on a journey of self-discovery. Batman plans to spend quality time with Tim Drake and Dick Grayson while Superman plans on spending some quality time with his wife.

Alexander Luthor is killed by the bad guys, allowing him to be dealt with without sullying any good guy's hands. While Superboy-Prime is locked up by the Green Lantern Corps, instead of being outright murdered, and although he plans to escape, he isn't at the moment.

If Infinite Crisis wasn't an optimistic ending, I don't know what is.

Sure some people died. Such as Earth-Two Superman, but he spends the entire series judging everyone in the DCU and finding them wanting. And yet in the end he discovers that he was wrong, and they were good people and they were worth saving.

Alexander Luthor is stopped for the most part in his quest to destroy the DCU in favour of Earth-Two with only minor differences in the DCU while the multiverse probably returned. Not exactly a loss for the good guys or despairing.

The one bad thing that happened was Conner did die. And yet are you saying all good guys must live for it to be optimistic? Even Star Trek: The Original Series had good people die left right and center. Although they were too frightened to make them name characters, good people did die.

Civil War I can't comment on because I haven't read it in total.

If they produce crap, and let's be honest, of late they've mostly produced that, then let's let them die.
Thing is though, Captain America was actually interesting ever since Ed Brubaker had gone onto his title. I mean, me, someone who would never read a comic like Captain America, gave it a go and enjoyed it because of him.

Comment from: vark [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 7:12 PM

I don't have the numbers here to crunch.
Thesis: there's been an information explosion since the 40s. We have 500 channels + insteasd of three.
What i'm wondering is how many total issues of comics are sold this month (I include manga) compared to 1940?
It's possibly the numbers are similar, but today's are more spread out among a larger number of comics, the long tail approach. As technologies change, some industries (dead tree newspapers) become more concentrated, while others become more diverse.
It's also useful to state prices in terms of 1940s dollars instead of confusing a 1940s silver dime (the FDR and the roman fasces on it) with a dime today. I'm guessing comics are cheaper now, both in real terms and as a percent of disposablre income, but again I don't have the data, what with just being an aardvark.

Comment from: HydrogenGuy [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 7, 2007 8:26 PM

There's an issue here in Eric's post that don't think anyone's addressed yet.

...we're reaching the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation was as long ago as the original Star Trek was when TNG first came out. Feel old yet?

Damn you, Eric Burns! Damn you!!

Comment from: John Lynch [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 8, 2007 5:48 AM

Y'know a scene I wish Marvel had have used for the basis for New Avengers post-Civil War is in Civil War #3 when Captain America and co are running down an alley to go rescue and they're all changing into their uniforms. That scene, that one panel, it was great and would have made me enjoy New Avengers. I'd enjoy any comic that used that one panel as the basis for the comic. It doesn't have to be those characters, just the feel that was gotten from that panel and the few preceding it. I would have enjoyed reading that comic and part of it was how important secret identities would be in it.

Comment from: The Internet Axolotl [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 8, 2007 12:39 PM

Regarding Hydrogen Guy's comment above:

The last original Star Trek episode aired one year before I was born.

TNG premiered when I was in high school.

So yes and no. (Next year is my 20-year reunion for high school.)

Comment from: RAC [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 8, 2007 11:53 PM

I wrote this elsewhere but it struck me as an important aspect to why comics don't sell as well today as they once did. And it ties into Robotech_Master's point nicely:

I never really read comics growing up because I just couldn't afford them. They were like the kiddie version of cigarettes—you just have to keep buying them and buying them.

Big part of the problem right there. Besides being neverending serials, modern comics are addicted to a collect-`em-all format.

It used to be that even though the events of a comic would (naturally) affect the issues of that comic that came after, multi-part stories were rare and crossovers that had long-term effects on your favorite character were even moreso.

At that point, to know what was going on in Amazing Spider-Man, you bought Amazing Spider-Man.

By the late `80s and early `90s, to know what was going on in Amazing Spider-Man you should probably also get Spectacular and Web, and slightly later plain old Spider-Man. And whatever other books Spidey was in or connected to the big companywide crossover.

It's not just the current creative approach to comics that scares off new readers. (I'm sure it helps, though.) It is the price, but not in the way that I think it's assumed. It's that you can't just buy one three-dollar comic, you must buy many many more to get the full effect or even just to know what the hell is going on in that first three-dollar comic you bought.

Now let's look at manga, since manga are pretty much comics except successful. To know what the ultimate effect of Dragonball Volume 7 is, you only have to buy Dragonball Volume 8. To know which books to pick up to understand Dragonball 7 you buy Dragonball books with numbers lower than 7. It's simple, and easy to understand, and you can get what you want in one trip to the bookstore or comic shop without asking for help.

Crossovers and To Be Continueds boost sales temporarily but I think they also form a dense wall that effectively shields your property from all but those with the pre-existing love of the character and the cubic money to breach it.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 10:55 AM

Well, that's not counting parodies, shout-outs, and the like from crossovers, right? Those happen frequently in manga. Though admittedly, it's due to comedic manga, but it's still the kind of thing where you're not going to get the joke unless you're familiar with the other reference. KochiKame and Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo are both great for that.

Also, in part to raise interest, I've seen quite a few manga artists throw in characters from previous works into current projects. And that's not counting cases where the artist obviously reused character designs (Masakazu Katsura is a huge recycler that I've seen).

While it might be less pronounced in Japan, the crossover effect still comes in a bit. However, as it's perfectly feasible to pick up a magazine that has 20 different titles in it for two bucks, the economics show that it's really easy to get acquainted enough to get the jokes.

Comment from: RAC [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at March 9, 2007 8:13 PM

Parodies and stuff full of pop culture injokes I think are a little different because they assume you're already familiar with something, and if you don't get the joke, too bad- no copious "Continued in..." or "As seen in..." notes.

But in fact, now that I think about it, Dragonball Volume 7 actually has a crossover, from Toriyama's own Dr. Slump. Funny that my brain settled on that as an arbitrary example.

But you don't really need to buy Dr. Slump to get what's going on in Dragonball- essentially Goku meets a bunch of weirdoes who we never see again in the context of Dragonball, and unless you really want to know more about them that's the end of it.

And I think that's an important difference. It might make you interested in Dr. Slump- it did me, and Slump can be pretty funny. But outside of that moment Dr. Slump's Penguin Village and the rest of Dragonball's world never intersect again, and your comprehension of one won't be hurt much, if at all, by not knowing about the other.

So let me suggest as an addition to my previous post that when crossovers and cameos work properly, in any comics from anywhere, they don't mandate further reading. They merely suggest it, trying their best to make the cameo characters look appealing to people who might not have known about them before.

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