Tuesday, April 11, 2006

An Eventful Year in Comics

The transition from isolated comic book series to "big events" began back in 2004, although I don't think any of us realized how significant the transition would be. As it turns out, this transition was the second major transition of the 21st century, following up on the shift in emphasis from artist to writer that took hold in earnest in 2000-2001.

Right now, the industry is driven by events. Not gimmicks, mind you, but legitimate comic book events that are story driven, continuity focused, and line affective. The story has to be good; if it's not a good story with a strong hook, the event is DOA. Image made an earnest effort to link their teen superheroes in The Pact, but an unfocused story made it difficult for the series to be taken seriously by fans of any of the characters involved.

Readers are also looking for continuity links; they want to know that what happens in the event story will have ramifications in other books featuring those same characters. This is why Identity Crisis succeeded where House of M didn't, for the most part. Identity Crisis shook up the entire DC Universe, and its affect led directly into the next even larger event. House of M affected no one outside of a few mutants, and the most significant mutant effects were either negated ("I just thought I lost my powers," Iceman said unconvincingly) or mitigated by later happenings (Quicksilver doesn't run fast any longer, but his new powers give him much the same net outcome). Identity Crisis will stand as a turning point; House of M will remain largely a dead end.

A "line affective" story is the measuring stick that readers use to determine the significance of an event. How much is the universe shaken up? How many characters are changed? How significant are the changes? Infinite Crisis has changed everything in the DC Universe; it is the ultimate "line affective" story. Spider-Man: The Other changed nothing except the superficial; a character got sick, he got better... he died, he was reborn. Ultimately, same old same old... except he has a new costume for now. Years ago, DC was criticized for having a stagnant universe while Marvel's universe was praised as dynamic and changing; in more recent years, though, it's DC's universe that has been truly dynamic, while Marvel's universe has struggled to present the illusion of change in big events that ultimately take us full circle back to where we began.

Will Civil War be the series that changes that? I hope so. DC has reached a crescendo with Infinite Crisis; even though I expect the interest to continue into 52's weekly storyline, it won't have the same line affective impact because we already know how it turns out. We'll be enjoying the journey, not wondering where it's going to take us. So ultimately, the comics market needs Civil War to be the Marvel event that delivers. Readers need that element of uncertainty, I think, to keep them coming back. And from what editor Tom Brevoort and writer Mark Millar have said in interviews, they're aware of that, and they seem to have taken plenty of notes over the past year as DC hit all their marks.

DC is in an interesting place. They've deconstructed and reconstructed their continuity; they've taken their line to a dark, ominous place, and then they've brought it back from that brink. Now they've shaken up everything, and they're gambling that, once we know where everything is going, we can't look away as we see how it got there. But there's also a downside to the gamble: their year-long event exists without their three "big guns," since neither Superman, Batman, nor Wonder Woman will play a role. Having seen the deftness with which they launched their One Year Later titles, I'm confident that they can make 52 a success. But most of all, I admire them for the gamble that they're taking; they're showing a boldness rarely seen in comics.

Marvel is also in an interesting place. They all but dismantled continuity in the first five years of this century; characters were so dissimilar from one title to another that it seemed difficult to believe that anyone in charge at Marvel was even reading the titles, much less guiding them. Early this year, it seemed like they were throwing anything against the wall to see what would stick; Annihilation and Planet Hulk, two event stories, launched at the same time, and neither seems to meet any of the three crucial requirements for event success. But Civil War... it's already starting to resonate with fans, even though its full impact will be spread over more than six dozen comics. In some ways, it seems almost too big... but I think the gamble may pay off. If the first month delivers enough significant story development to convince readers that this time the event really matters, then I think that Civil War will do for Marvel what the Crisis storylines have done for DC.

And if it does, I hope that continuity-conscious editors like Tom Brevoort have enough clout to see it through to the next level, rebuilding the almost-lost continuity that was once the company's stock in trade. I may be a DC fan first (hey, it's what I grew up with before there was a Marvel superhero line!), but I was also a Marvel completist who was there for FF #1 back in 1961, so I have a history with the company. And as a retailer, reader, journalist, and observer of comics, I see benefits for the whole industry if both of the Big Two are really on their game.

1 comment:

Doug said...

I've become a much bigger DC fan over the last year and a half, while my discontent with Marvel seems to grow.

Every decision about Marvel's books lately seems to be driven by which character has a movie deal coming up or [insert trendy,pseudo-celebrity writer] wants to revamp his favorite childhood character.

Ed Brubaker's Daredevil and Mark Millar's Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Ultimates have been the only Marvel books in recent months to consistently make me happy with my purchase. I'm hoping the trend changes, or my pull list is going to start shrinking.