Confessions of a Comic Book Hater

Recently, I tweeted on the sorry state of mainstream superhero comics.  Specifically, I commented on the failings of Marvel and DC’s efforts as I see them.  There were a few intelligent rebuttals to those comments.  Never let it be said that I am an unreasonable man (though, of course, like all humans, I have my unreasonable moments).  But it’s time for a little self-examination on my part, and how that relates to a struggling industry.

It’s easy to generalize, but it’s never fair to do so.  By claiming that Marvel and DC aren’t producing anything original or interesting, I’m guilty of a blanket statement, a gross overstatement that should be mocked.  So I apologize for that, and I apologize to all the hard-working writers, artists, editors, etc. behind the scenes who deserve more respect than to have their work roundly dismissed by an outsider.  It was wrong of me to do that, and I’m sorry.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that many of my complaints with mainstream comic book superheroes are the stereotypical complaints of the older generation with younger media.  Too much sex.  Too much violence.  Excessive gore.  Excessive language.  Maybe those complaints might have some validity, but they certainly sound like the muttered grumblings of an old man who can’t keep up with the times.  There’s no point in denying that some of my favorite comics, the stories and character interpretations I like best, tend to come from my own “golden age” when I discovered these characters and loved them best.  While my own golden age might coincide with the greatest comic book superhero stories ever told, it would be an unlikely coincidence.  Like any medium and genre, comic book superheroes have to change to remain relevant.

These are my own biases.  I won’t pretend they don’t color my opinions.

It’s also easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback in these situations.  I can sit back and criticize Marvel / DC all day, but that’s a luxury that comes from being on the sidelines of that business.  I can suggest they get back to their “roots”, a phrase that, by some strange coincidence, means writing stories I want to read.

When I criticize the comic book medium, I’m really saying, “Hey, write more comic books I like.”  That’s something I dearly wish would happen, but it isn’t necessarily best for the industry.

At the same time, I stand by my assessment that Marvel and DC are bereft of original ideas, that they would much rather repackage what they’ve already done, and have too many artists who are so immersed in their own excesses that they are blind to them.  There is a shameful lack of diversity in its halls, and too often, minority / female / gay characters are treated as gimmicks and toys rather than genuine commodities.  Worse, any complaints about this are usually dismissed as groundless by the people in charge.

Though I realize gore and sex are part of “sophisticated” entertainment, I also point to The Avengers, a movie that is a soft PG-13 and made about a gazillion dollars at the box office.  Pick up any mainstream comic book at random, and you’ll more than likely encounter sex and violence that would rate them as R.  These aren’t horror comics I’m talking about.  Or mature content comics.  These are mainstream comics featuring flagship characters.  Avengers succeeded because it cultivated the mainstream audience the comic book industry so craves while it continues writing stories aimed at cynical 40 year olds who can’t get enough of Batman swearing or, for some inexplicable reason, zombie versions of superheroes.

We’ve established that I’m an outsider in the business, and that this gives me the luxury of complaining without having to be at risk.  With that said, what might I suggest to bring life to an ailing industry?

Diversity, first of all.  Not just a handful of women / minorities either, but a much larger percentage.  Seek these people out.  Recruit them.  Treat them as the asset they could be rather than as a concession.  Stop treating minority / female / gay characters as an obligation.  And realize that having one non-white guy in your team isn’t enough.

Simple stories, told well.  Stop writing complicated epics that go nowhere and don’t pay off.  “Nothing will ever be the same!” only works so many times.  Even if it’s true, people don’t need to be shocked constantly.  They can enjoy a story told well that doesn’t blow up the universe or require reading fifty comics.  It’s true that by tying all your comics together in one massive lump, you’re encouraging (i.e. forcing) consumers to buy a lot of comics, but that also means you’re discouraging people from buying any comics in the first place.

Stop treating more obscure characters as mere fodder for the stories of other more popular characters.  Cultivate lesser characters, giving them the time and care to grow into something more.  Don’t just base your choices on sales, though nobody expects you to ignore them.  We understand you’re there to make money.  But consider if killing a character (even an obscure one) is really going to add anything to your story.  I know as writers we’re trained to up the stakes, but when caretaking a shared universe, every character is loved by someone.  Don’t kill them off lightly in service of cheap drama.

Also, more Squirrel Girl, please.

I’m not promising these will help an ailing industry, but it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

Now get off my lawn, you damn kids!

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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6 Comments

  1. Posted June 7, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    i have said this before and i’ll keep saying it until it happens. i would love to see you write a comic. i have no doubt it would be great.

  2. Revereche
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Agreeing with astro al, your writing is IDEAL for comic format. And as much as I love sex and gore myself, I agree – superhero comics are a format inherently made for light-hearted romps (not to say we can’t get dark, a la original Batman, just that it doesn’t really make sense to treat it seriously when the whole concept is ridiculous). Watchmen was dark satire, guys, not an invitation to ruin a good thing =P Of course, I’d like to see a desaturation of the American comic market with superheroes, period.

  3. Posted June 13, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Much as I hate to say it, a lot of the problem is the audience. Comic fans as a whole respond, even if complaining the entire time, more heavily in sales to those line-wide events and increasingly dark stories than they do to tales that are self-contained, or even serialized, that are just plain fun. In fact, fun is kind of a dirty word among comics fans. It’s as though if anyone is smiling, except to make some dark gallows humor, it’s a sign of immaturity. I blame Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns for this. I love those books, but after that, it was like someone decided that comics all had to be dark and gritty forever. This keeps around only the die-hard fans, while driving away kids, whose parents aren’t eager to see tons of rape and dismemberment in every book.

    There is also the cost of comics, which are unreasonably high considering what ones gets, which is now on average 20 pages for $4. Given this, people are much more risk-averse than when comics cost $1.00 or even $2.00 for 25 or more pages. This leads to the existing fans to engage in a bunker mentality of only buying books with characters/creative teams they are sure they will like, and kids to use their disposable income on other, cheaper hobbies that grant far more entertainment per dollar.

    Given all that, comic publishers do what is safe, and will keep the current fanbase around at all costs rather than see the whole industry sink. I’m not saying they’re right to do so, but I believe it’s the mindset.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted June 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      I can’t argue with any of your comments. Thanks for sharing them.

  4. colin
    Posted June 17, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    mate just discovered your books and they are ‘Beaut’! Got Monster in the audible format and She Who must be Obeyed and I took a weekend hol up in Port Macquarie (in NSW AUSSIE)and she is hooked and went out straight away and bought ‘Divine Misfortune’ Definitely gonna add you to Terry Prachett as my ‘bottler’ authors. (means in Aussie ‘Good enough to bottle’ as opposed to wine only good enough to put in a cask.)

  5. Rick
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    I agree with most of the critique leveled at the current comic book industry. I spent more than a decade reading and collecting comics and still enjoy many of the movies being produced today.

    However, I stopped reading them for two major reasons. Continuity and guns. For continuity, I recall at one point Spidey had more than 4 series being written about him, all taking place in the same time period, with each one going off in it’s own direction. He may have had multiple broken ribs in one series, but was up and fine in the other. Little things like that are just bad editing.

    As for guns, unless using guns is your super power, no hero should be running around, firing off shots from a weapon that is as large as the turret of a howitzer tank! I stopped reading several series because they decided super powers didn’t matter, instead everybody was going to run around with big giant guns and pretend to be a para-military attack force. Ridiculous!

    I’d love to see a lot of the current writers go back and read who the characters that they write for were originally meant to be. Figure out how to bring them back into the original persona and plot a course to make it happen, while keeping in regard the actual character development that took place. I think they would create a far better form than what is currently being offered.

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