Friday, March 19, 2010

Kill the Periodical

In his latest "Tilting at Windmills" column, Brian Hibbs addresses a few points that seem well worth considering, but that I'm not sure anyone at Marvel or DC actually does much thinking about, given the general way they've tended to deal with these things for years now.

SERIAL FICTION

Considering that a major part of Marvel and DC's business still consists of getting people to want to read periodically published comic books, they're both doing an incredibly bad job of cultivating the serial aspect of the format.

Instead of gearing the material to the schedule and then using that schedule to disseminate it in a way that enhances the drama, like, say, TV shows do, the two publishers act like they've got no control whatsoever over what gets published in a given week.

Instead of fine-tuned episodes, we get the equivalent of randomly chopped-up 12-hour films, produced in such a way that even their editors have come to regard the precise time of their publication a matter of fate rather than of choice.

For years now, the two major publishers have been treating content and release frequency as concepts that are completely divorced and independent from each other.

CREATIVE RETREAT

A common definition says that "genre" stories tend to be plot-driven, while "literary" stories tend to be character-driven.

Now, personally, I regard character-driven stories a requirement for any kind of "good" fiction, so I'm inclined to agree with the sentiment of Hibbs' point about the merits of so-called "creative retreats," at least.

The problem with the current crop of Marvel and DC books is that, because of the committee-directed, top-down way these publishing lines have been run since 2004, there's not much room for genuine character beats to develop.

There are exceptions, but generally, if any book has to exist in the framework of an over-arching plot that was mapped out by Brian Michael Bendis or by Geoff Johns two years ago, then that's not very helpful in terms of creating stories that don't just attract people's attention, but also pay off for them in a substantial way—i.e., a way that's driven by the characters, and driven by each creator's ideally unique voice.

In a good story—any good story—the relationship between character and plot and everything else that enters into the story is not incidental, but complementary and deliberate.

Even Bendis himself doesn't seem able to pull it off, although he's the one who's been at the helm at Marvel for six years. Look at his treatment of the Sentry. Look at J. Michael Straczynski's treatment of the Fantastic Four, for that matter. Look at the way the X-Men line has been micromanaged after Morrison left—six years later, and there's still no direction in sight. And how could there be, with 20 people having to arrive at a consensus first?

Within the last few years, Ed Brubaker, Mike Carey and Matt Fraction, who each have written some pretty good comics elsewhere, have worked on the X-Men books, edited by Axel Alonso, one of the best editors in the business. And they've yet to produce anything that's even in the same ballpark as the rest of their work.

Why is that? What was different when Grant Morrison did it?

At Marvel and DC, storytelling has been bureaucratized over the last five years. There are "creative retreats" that need to be held, and that have grown so big that, by definition, they are now anything but creative—lowest-common-denominator-everything-has-to-go-past-Jeph-Loeb-first retreats, is what they have become.

There are editorial offices that need to be justified, scores of secondary and tertiary spin-off titles that need to be fed and are sucking the life out of their mother properties.

EVERYTHING LOUDER THAN EVERYTHING ELSE

I wrote about this at length a few weeks back; the upshot is that everything can't "matter" to the Marvel Universe or the DC Universe all the time. By pretending it can, Marvel and DC don't just alienate their hardcore audiences, slowly but steadily, but also seal off their publishing lines from casual readers.

Stories of merit don't primarily matter to fictional universes. Stories of merit matter to people, because they're about people—about genuine human concerns, rather than artificial constructs.

In some of these respects, improvements seem on the way. It's a good sign, at least, that Straczynski is the new writer of Superman and Wonder Woman. I have no interest in either book, but this is the type of thing DC should be doing, even if the rest of their line, other than the Johns and Morrison books, still looks hopeless.

At Marvel, I'm more skeptical. As long as there are four monthly Avengers books and ten Spider-Man comics per month and 20 X-Men comics per month, and all of them are expected to serve one "cohesive" vision rather than to primarily be outlets for their creators to do new stuff with the characters in ways that makes all those books unique and very different and independent from each other, it doesn't seem like Marvel's learned from its mistakes of the last two years.

I'm not worried about the periodical, by the way.

Even if Marvel and DC went away tomorrow, which they won't, I'm confident there'd be more good comics—including periodical ones—around than I could possibly hope to read. I can see why traditional comics retailers like Hibbs are worried, though. I would be, if my main business partners were acting like the protagonist of Memento about pretty much every aspect of their product.

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