Warren Ellis has a book of essays about the comics industry called "Come In Alone", and I think I've mentioned it in this blog before. In it, he talks several times about how a lot of the reason that superhero comics have such a stranglehold over the comics industry is because so many comic fans continue to buy them no matter how good or bad they are, irrespective of who writes them. I've read that book twice so far this year--because I liked it so much the first time that I wanted to read it again within a few months--and both times, I thought long and hard about how complicit I myself am in what Warren's talking about. I do buy a decent amount of superhero comics, it's true. And sometimes I kind of hate it. I would really rather be reading more stuff like "Scalped" or "Criminal" or "DMZ". Fact is, though, it's just not out there in all that great a quantity. And when guys who write series like that also turn around and write superhero tales on a regular basis, can I really be blamed for wanting to buy those comics too?
Lately, I've been lucky: the titles I tend to buy without regard to who is writing them have been very good. Daredevil and Batman both have A-list writers at the moment (Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison, respectively), and Detective Comics, while less consistent than Batman's main title, has mostly been written by Paul Dini lately, and Dini's very good at coming up with single-issue Batman stories that stay intelligent and creative even as they hew closely to (somewhat tired) conventions of comic plotting. They make a nice contrast to Morrison's more high-concept work in recent issues of Batman.
The problem: Spider-Man. See, I don't buy the less relevant secondary and tertiary Spider-Man titles (by which I mean Sensational Spider-Man and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. I DO buy Ultimate Spider-Man, and most of the Ultimate line, in fact, but... well, more on that later). I can keep up with Spider-Man's main storyline, which is written by the talented (if not quite A-list) J. Michael Stracynski, and feel like I'm getting my Spider-Man fix. If someone brilliant was working on one of the other titles, I might actually start picking it up, but thus far that hasn't happened. Apparently, a lot of other people think the same way I do, because Marvel has recently come to the realization that Amazing Spider-Man sells about three times as many copies as their other Spider-Man book. And this has led them to pull a really dirty trick. To wit: in a few months, they are cancelling the other two Spider-Man titles, attaching their creative teams to Amazing Spider-Man, and making that title a tri-monthly. If that is the right term. What I'm saying is, it'll be coming out three times a month.
This really pisses me off. You see, I wasn't born yesterday. I am well aware of what Marvel are doing here. Evidently, someone in their sales or marketing department took a look at the success DC comics had with their weekly title 52, and are evidently continuing to have with its successor, Countdown, and said "It's been proven that they'll buy a comic every week if it comes out every week. So fine--if they won't buy three Spider-Man titles a month, we'll put out ONE Spider-Man title THREE times a month! Then they'll HAVE to buy three Spider-Man books a month, or they won't be able to follow the story at all!"
Now, I love Spider-Man. In fact, out of the three superheroes I love the most, he is probably my favorite. I have explained my reasoning to many of my friends, but I don't think I've ever mentioned it here, so I'll elaborate. See, as a kid, I could understand everything Spider-Man went through. I think it's fitting that Stan Lee bestowed spider powers on a high-school-age nerd. Peter Parker was a brilliant kid, just like me. But he found that it cut no ice in the rest of his life--he had few friends, was a constant target for bullying, and girls didn't know he was alive. When he gained the spider powers, he could do all kinds of wonderful things that benefited society, and in fact felt obligated to do so, but a significant portion of the population of New York thought he was just as bad as the criminals he fought. And even if everyone had loved Spider-Man, it didn't help Peter Parker at all. He and his aunt struggled with money problems in the wake of his uncle's death, and later, when Peter moved out of his aunt's house, he had financial struggles of his own. Girls still didn't know he was alive for the most part (Mary Jane Watson didn't become Peter's steady love interest until years after I started reading Amazing Spider-Man on a regular basis). And he still had to put up with teasing and bullying from the kids he went to school with, because they still just saw him as an awkward nerd. You'd think that being Spider-Man would have meant that Peter Parker's troubles were over, but the fact was that it didn't do him a damn bit of good. This, to me, was a nearly painful reminder of my own life. Like Parker, I was a brilliant yet socially awkward nerd, with few friends and no attention from girls. When I grew up and realized that I had no interest in the sort of prosperous middle-class lifestyle that society wanted for me, I ended up struggling with money in the same way that Peter always did. Reading Spider-Man, both as a kid and as an adult, was a way to read the struggles of a superhero that was, in many ways, just like me. I liked Spider-Man then, and like him now, because I relate to him.
Oh gosh, I've gotten pretty far afield of what I was trying to talk about. Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that I love Spider-Man. But I don't know if I love him enough to buy a Spider-Man book every week. Fact is, it was Brian Michael Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man that got me back into reading comics a few years ago (after hardly picking any up from puberty until my late 20s), and it's that title that gives me the most Spider-Man-related satisfaction these days. The characters and conventions of the title are the same as they are in the original Spider-Man title, but there's very little backstory baggage to deal with in the Ultimate title. Furthermore, Peter and Mary Jane have been married for years in the original title, and I just can't relate to his happy romantic life. In Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter's still in high school, and constantly struggles with romantic issues. Hate to say it, but this has more relevance to my life than a guy who is my age and has been married for years. And you know, to top all of this off, Bendis is a better writer than any of the writers who've worked on Amazing Spider-Man in the time that I've read it. I realize that Stan Lee's work on the first 100 or so issues is probably the best writing he ever did, but that doesn't mean it's really all that great. Stan was an idea man. His plotting is contrived, his characters wooden, his dialogue unrealistic. I can enjoy his work on the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, but a lot of that is probably due to nostalgia. If I came upon it for the first time now, I would probably find it hard to sustain interest in--and can you blame me?
So--I'm considering dropping Amazing Spider-Man from my pull list, for the crime of going to a 3 issues a month release plan. That's reasonable, right? You might think it's less so, though, after I make this next revelation: I bought every issue of 52, and am currently buying every issue of Countdown. And that's not the worst part. This is the worst part: I still haven't read the last 6 or so issues of 52, and I haven't even begun Countdown. I started buying 52 because Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen were working on the title, and while I enjoyed it at first (especially the Renee Montoya sections--I was a big fan of Gotham Central), I lost interest after a while, and began shuffling every new issue to the bottom of my to-be-read pile. At this point, I've got a stack of maybe 15 or so issues down there. Maybe even more. And before I can get into them, I'm going to have to refresh my memory of the prior issues of 52, which will probably involve starting over from the beginning, considering that it's been nearly four months since I read any of them.
It's this kind of shit that drives Warren Ellis crazy--I know. And I feel guilty every time I think about it. But rather than dropping Countdown from my subscription box, I keep paying for it every week. There's a rationale for this; I always think, "But what if I get around to reading all of those issues I bought but haven't read, and they're good? I'll want the rest of the issues then." It's a legitimate point, but rather than continuing to pile up comics that cost me $3 a week, I should probably just make it a point to sit down and read through them all, so that I know for sure. You want to know a secret? I kind of don't even want to. At this point, it seems like a big pain in the ass, and when I have stacks and stacks of unread comics that I could read instead--most of which I'm sure I'll like better than 52 and Countdown--it's hard to force myself to do it. So far, I haven't managed.
And I'm sort of afraid that, for this reason, Marvel's nefarious plan will work. I might let Amazing Spider-Man stack up for weeks and weeks, or I might read the first few three-issue months and find the quality level drastically lowered. Or maybe both will happen. If so, will I be able to pull the plug, when I haven't been able to do so on Countdown? Or will I keep buying a mediocre comic title in the hopes that it'll get good again? This is why I hate superhero comics sometimes. Not because they suck, but because they put me in awkward positions like this.
Because see, sometimes they're really good. The work-for-hire terms that allow the big two to treat their creative teams as interchangeable, and to value long-running characters over writers and artists, are so terrible that it's sometimes surprising that any half-decent writer or artist will bother to work on superhero comics at all. Then you remember the reality of the comics business. To wit: superhero comics outsell non-superhero comics by at least three to one. And while losing the rights to one's work forever to a faceless company is a truly shitty thing, the truth is that superhero comics pay far, far better than smaller, creator-owned titles. Bendis and Ellis and Brubaker, among many others, may be geniuses, but even geniuses have to put food on the table. So they keep working on superhero comics, and I therefore keep buying them. Sometimes, these purchases are far more rewarding than they have any right to be. For example, in this month's issue of Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed's New Avengers: Illuminati mini-series, the first five pages are devoted entirely to a discussion about women between the members of the Illuminati (Charles Xavier, Prince Namor, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, and Black Bolt of the Inhumans). It starts out serious and downbeat, but quickly turns hilarious, and does much to reveal the different personalities of each character--the kind of thing that was almost never bothered with for much of the history of the medium. By the fourth page of the comic, I was holding my breath with excitement at the prospect of an entire issue devoted to a conversation between the Illuminati about what women want. When an actual plot was introduced on page 6, I was disappointed. The rest of the issue was good, don't get me wrong. But those first five pages were absolute brilliance. And as long as superhero comics continue to present me with moments of brilliance on that level, I'll keep buying them. No matter how much I sometimes hate them.