I grew up reading comic books. Mostly superhero comics books. Yes, there’s a distinction. Superheroes are a genre. Comic books are a medium. The average person doesn’t care about that, but it’s actually important. One of the reasons I find the Best Animated Feature Oscar to be so silly is that you might as well have a category for Best Movie Filmed with Handheld Camera or Best Movie Shot through an Oversaturated Color-Filter category while you’re at it.
For most of my childhood, my young adulthood, and even my early thirties, I was a comic book fan. I expanded my love of the medium beyond superheroes, though I’ll admit that the superhero genre remains my favorite. But I don’t buy many comics of any genres these days for many reasons. And those reasons aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, they’re spreading to other media such as TV, films, and books. And the results are shaping up to be exactly the same as they were with the comic book industry.
Yes, I’ve seen this all before, where it starts, and where it ends, and it isn’t a pretty picture. Allow me to share my experience with comic books and the parallel going along with other media.
When I was a young man, I loved comic books for their flexibility. They could tell epic adventures spanning years or simple tales stretching only an issue or two. Two of my favorite characters were The Punisher and The Silver Surfer. It’s hard to imagine two characters more different. One is a street-level vigilante who obsessively hunts down criminals to ruthlessly execute them. One is The Sentinel of the Spaceways, who flies through the cosmos, unleashing incredible cosmic powers, and feeling a bit mopey while he’s at it.
The Punisher’s first ongoing title was little more than a series of 80’s action movies. Storylines rarely ran more than three issues, and in that time, he would kill all the bad guys before heading off to a new adventure with little concern or investment in continuity. The Silver Surfer had longer ongoing arcs involving their own convoluted, unique mythology. You could jump right into a Punisher story without much effort, but diving into the middle of a Silver Surfer tale (especially without a knowledge of the established cosmic canon of the Marvel Universe) was a lot harder. Yet that was entirely the point.
This was one company publishing two very different characters. They weren’t meant to have crossover appeal. It was assumed that someone reading a Punisher title was interested in different things than a Silver Surfer title and that was a good thing. It meant that they weren’t competing with each other directly. Each character occupied their own unique slot in both their fictional universe and also, among the customer base.
And then the 90’s came along and ruined everything. Comic books became a million dollar industry. Image Comics turned artist / writers into stars and sold an Extreme! version of what comic books that everyone assumed comics SHOULD be. And with so much money flooding the industry, who could blame the companies and creators for getting confused.
Now, I’m not going to say that comics weren’t always a business. Just look at all those classic weird covers where Superman or Batman is doing something weird just to grab the reader’s curiosity and encourage them to buy the title. Gimmicks were nothing new in the 90’s, but they rose to new levels and haven’t really gone down since.
Continuity became king. Once superheroes had lived in loose, shared universes. The Punisher and Silver Surfer technically existed in the same world, but they weren’t likely to ever meet. Sometimes, Batman might visit Metropolis, but for the most part, every character and their adventures were self-contained. And then a generation of writers obsessed with creating a truly interconnected universe and marketers who saw the advantage of having Character X’s title be completely connected to Character Y’s title (thus encouraging customers to buy two titles to get the whole story) took over. Superhero universes became a giant, mixed up stew. It became nearly impossible to like only a small portion of them. It was eventually an all or nothing experience.
While I have an overall positive impression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe experience, it’s in its birthing stages. Right now, it’s entirely possible to skip a movie and not be confused about what’s going on. I skipped Thor 2: The Dark World, for instance, because I love Thor’s adventures but am so deeply invested in them that the movie was bound to disappoint me. I haven’t watched more than a few episodes of Agents of Shield, and it hasn’t created any obstacles to watching the Marvel movies. In both cases, a concerted effort has been made to create a solid continuity without forcing anyone to submit to that continuity.
Those days will end eventually, for the exact same reason they ended in superhero comic books. One day, a creator with too much ambition and a marketer confronted with flattened profits will meet and decide the best way to solve this problem will be to make the latest Rom: Space Knight film essential to the next Man-Thing movie. It will be expected that the audience is willing to invest in the complicated history of Devil Dinosaur to enjoy the Howard the Duck trilogy to the fullest. (Hey, they’re my examples. I’ll use what I want.)
Films will no longer be seen as finished products, but as products to advertise other products in the future. The Tomb of Dracula movie will exist solely to launch The Legion of Monsters arc that will only exist to further the Legion of Monsters vs. Shuma-Gorath 3 part epic. (Again, my examples.)
And it won’t end with superhero films. Right now, a group of executives are trying to figure out how to transform everything from Ghostbusters to Teen Wolf into a blockbuster franchise, a self-reinforcing marketing machine that pulls in customers via gimmick and habit. These will be the Special Foil Covers and Epic Crossover Events of the industry, and they will bring about an even more pronounced absence of creativity and variety. And it’ll work for a while until the whole thing collapses under its own weight.
The comic book industry has never fully recovered from its most successful era. There are still interesting comic books being produced, but both Marvel and DC, the big guys on the block, have never been able to move away from the blockbuster, continuity obsessive mentality. Both companies acknowledge a problem of continuity lockout (when potential readers simply cannot follow a story for lack of knowledge of previous stories), an over-reliance on gimmicky crossovers, and a disjointed lack of direction. Neither company has made any real effort to fix those problems aside from occasionally rebooting their universes, only to almost immediately drown them in the same problems they were trying to fix.
And isn’t the same thing already happening in superhero movies? Days of Future Past is a movie that mostly exists to fix the problems of previous X-Men films. Spider-Man looks like he might get a third reboot soon as new creators decide to wash their hands of the train wreck of previous ones. And Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (a title that really should’ve gone through some focus groups) is a group of desperate creators jamming so many characters and ideas into a single film in hopes of launching their own cinematic universe cash cow, you have to wonder why Plastic Man and Martian Manhunter aren’t included as well. Maybe they are. Haven’t heard the latest updates.
It’s about profits. Let’s not fool ourselves. But the desire to be financially successful and creatively rewarding need not be in conflict. They will though. And sooner than later, I think. And there’s really not much to do but enjoy the ride and brace ourselves for the coming crash. Hopefully, it won’t happen before I get to write Devil Dinosaur: The Movie. But only time will tell.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,