Fan Service

As a long time, on again, off again comic book fan, it’s no secret that I’ve had my ups and downs with the storytelling medium I used to consider my favorite.  Comic books are going through a crisis, and it’s one from which they may never escape.  Like a black hole of sucking doom, this could lead to their end.

Oh, I believe comic books (and superheroes) will be around for a while.  And, yes, I know that comic books aren’t strictly about superheroes, but let’s be honest, it’s what they’re most famous for at this point and it’s probably what they’ll stay famous for.  Road to Perdition and A History of Violence may have both been based on graphic novels, but neither seemed enthusiastic to advertise that.  No, to the general public, comic books are about superheroes, and there’s just no way around that.

Ironically, I’m not even sure how many comic book writers right now actually care about the superhero genre in the first place.  Most comic books I pick up are talky, dull affairs about people who just happen to have super powers.  It’s almost as if most the writers who grew up reading comics loved the medium but don’t really like superheroes.  But if you want to make a living writing comics, odds are good that you’ll be writing something with superheroes in it.

But I’m getting off topic.  (Funny how often that happens when I write about this stuff, isn’t it?)

The problem with comic books, the inescapable dilemma they’re facing, is how the hell do you write a comic book that appeals to fans and non-fans at the same time?  As of yet, nobody has really figured out how to do it.

I make no bones about it that fannish devotion to previous continuity in comic book universes is killing the comic book.  Most non-fans would have a hell of a time picking up any random comic book, even one featuring mainstream heroes, and knowing what the hell is going on.  And that’s just too bad because while the fans may love spending hours researching the backstory of 12,ooo characters to make sense of a story that takes two or three years (and several hundred issues and several hundred dollars) to unfold, your average reader probably isn’t willing to invest the same amount of effort.  And who can really blame them?

Yet the fans are the only thing keeping comic books afloat right now.  The die hards who read anything with Wolverine or Spider-Man in it are where most of the money is.  But these popular characters also come with a lot of baggage that most fans want to see exploited.  A straight-forward story where Batman tracks down some bankrobbers is just not going to appeal to them.  No, they want to see Night Wing and Robin and the Joker.  And they want Night Wing and Robin to have a clever exchange of dialogue that refers to something that happened “a few years ago” in comic book time, but is probably more like 15 years ago in reality time.  Leave those out, and they’re disatisfied.  And they’ll let you know.

The problem is that these devoted fans are strangling the life out of the very thing they love.

And yet, non-fans are not that interested in comic books because comic books are not a mainstream thing.  Comic book heroes may be mainstream, but comic books themselves are still a specialty product sold in special outlet stores that, while not always hostile to non-fans, are rarely very welcoming.  I still visit my comic book store and it’s not unusual to get a feeling like you’re an outsider.  Not because anyone treats you as such, but just because everyone seems to know so much more than you.  It’s like being a rocket scientist in a room full of anthropologists.  You may know you’re smart, but you also can’t help but feel like you’re missing out on a lot of the subtleties of the conversation.

DC’S BLACKEST NIGHT is the latest fan service event about an army of evil undead black lanterns who rise from their graves to do something evil.  I’m not going to lie to you.  It’s pretty terrible.  Fans will love it, of course.  Because the thing is filled with all these fan moments.  Also, I’m not so sure that many fans of comic books actually like superheroes either.  They’d much rather read a zombie book with superheroes pasted into it.  But that’s just me being grouchy, so ignore that.

But let’s take Blackest Night for what it is.  It’s a comic devoted to pleasing fans, and it probably does a good job of that.  While non-fans will find themselves confused by the long-winded conversation between Green Lantern and Flash about their complicated pasts and then utterly unimpressed by the appearance of Zombie Martian Manhunter, fans will eat this up.  When Zombie Elongated Man and Zombie Sue Dibney confront Hawkman and Hawkgirl, most fans’ eyes will glimmer with sinister glee and most non-fans will wonder who the hell any of these characters are.

Blackest Night #1 is all set up.  If you’re already invested in these characters and this universe, it’s not bad.  But what if you’re not?  This is the problem.  This is the gnawing catch-22 that is slowly eating comic books alive.

How the hell do you make a comic book that is full of in-references and beloved fan characters (both famous and obscure) that doesn’t alienate non-fans?  Or, vice versa, how do you write a comic book full of action, adventure, and accessibility that will keep hardcore fans interested?

Though I’ve always considered myself a comic book fan, I have discovered that, in truth, I’m not.  Because even though I get many of the references in Blackest Night, even though I understand much of the backstory and am familiar with the characters, I couldn’t give a damn.  I just don’t care.  I suppose I’m trapped in some strange twilight realm between fan and non-fan.  I know enough to follow what’s going on, but I’m not invested enough to give a crap.  I know that having Zombie Martian Manhunter coming after Green Lantern and Flash is supposed to be a crowning moment of cool.  But instead, it just comes off as fan service, as pandering.  Like World War Hulk (“Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if the Hulk beat up everybody!”) or Civil War (“Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if half the superheroes started fighting with the other half!”) I find the entire thing laughably ill-conceived.  But, hey, I’m not a fan.  I’m just some guy who likes comics.  And it turns out there’s a world of difference between the two.

Another interesting experiment from DC is WEDNESDAY COMICS.  This throwback to Sunday comic weeklies is a nifty idea.  And I’ll admit that so far it’s been endearing and fun.  But who is going to buy this?  Who is going to spend $4 to buy a weekly comic featuring continuing stories printed in a page-a-week format?  The art is great.  The nostalgia is nice.  The stories are developing quite nicely.  But is a non-fan going to pick this up?

And even if they did, what would they find?  Comics that are decidedly retro.  Characters that are in stories nothing like you’d actually read if you picked up a comic.  The Green Lantern strip doesn’t have a single zombie, swear word, or long, drawn out exchange of history referencing dialogue.  The Batman strip is a noirish crime thriller with nary a supporting cast member shown (outside of Commissioner Gordon so far).  The Kamandi strip is just awesome, a great tribute to Prince Valiant, but who is going to become a Kamandi fan from reading it?  And, even if they did, where the hell are they going to find a Kamandi comic book on the shelves?

Nowhere.  That’s where.

Wednesday Comics is intentionally old school.  There’s no blood, no gore.  No attempts at edginess.  Even the Batman strip, the most brooding and dark of the offerings, is surprisingly low-key and subtle.  Maybe somebody will get tortured to death by a power drill at some point, but for now, all its violence is implied, not painted in graphic reds and blacks across the panels.

And I still can’t really figure out who it’s for.  I really like it, but, as stated previously, I am not a fan.  Comic book writers long ago gave up on casual readers.

MARVEL DIVAS is a new series that is an attempt to reach out to a female audience.  Despite having “Divas” in the title (The Mighty Robot King has placed that term in his To Be Reviled Index), it’s not a bad book.  But, again, it’s filled with in-references and fan service.  The cover features our four heroines decked out in sexy superhero attire, but the interior hardly shows them in costume at all.  So if Marvel Divas isn’t really a superhero book (and as far as I can tell it isn’t, anymore than Blackest Night is a superhero book) then why not just admit this and put the ladies in non-superhero attire on the cover?  It’s not as if any of these characters are recognizable icons.  I know Hellcat.  Heck, I even like Hellcat.  But what casual reader is going to walk by a comic book shop, spot Hellcat in the window, and say, “Hey, I want that comic because clearly, it’s a comic about four women (with incidental superpowers) who sit around and talk about dating, fashion, and cancer!”

Quote Will Ferrell:  “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

So now I realize I’ve written a whole hell of a lot about a problem that is obvious to most comic book fans and completely irrelevant to everyone else.  And that just shows how big this problem is.  As much as I want to shake Marvel and DC and scream, “Stop with the gimmicks!  Just write a good, accessible story!” I also know that they’re doing the only thing they can think of.

Is it short-sighted?  I think so, but trying anything else is risky.  It’s hard to gamble when the long term gains may never come.

But, bringing this around to me, I have to say this is why I find myself reluctant to start a series.  Because this is the inevitable result.  Inevitably, you become a devoted servant of fan service and not storytelling.  Not to suggest that many series haven’t managed to do both at the same time, but it’s not easy.  And comic books lost that battle a long time ago.

Will they recover?  Hard to say.  I’d say no, but that’s just the cynic in me.  Plus, it’s pretty damned late, and I should’ve been in bed a while ago.  Why the hell do I start these blog entries just before bed time?

So I leave you with a long rant that observes a problem that many others before me have already observed, and I offer no solution.  Sorry to have wasted your time, gang.  Try not to hold it against me.

All I really know about comic books is that more stories should feature Blue Beetle and Squirrel Girl.  And if DC and Marvel ever feel like doing another inter-company crossover, I’d pay good money to write a Blue Beetle / Squirrel Girl one-shot.  That’s right!  I’d pay you, guys! 

Just putting that out there.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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One Comment

  1. Gabe
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I think with series novels you don’t have to write all the in-references that abound. There’s the 87th precinct novels by Ed McBain, the Marlowe novels, Continental Op, Martin Beck, etc. Granted, while these are all crime novels and probably don’t follow fantasy/comic book formulas, there stuff to be learned about how these writers write series novels whose books can be read in any order. I think even Steven Brust can be read in any order.

    Comic books have the stigma of being comic books. I don’t know what kind of non-fan you have in mind, but the average joe probably won’t walk into a comic book shop and buy a comic simply because it’s a comic. They may love all the superhero movies and watch all the shows, but to walk into a completely different sub-culture–whose adherents, for the most part, tend to be pretty elitist–will take a miracle. I think there’ more to it than just continuity issues, though that is a big factor. I don’t read ginormous fantasy novels for that reason.

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