Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Editorial: This Shouldn't Have To Be Rocket Science

Before I begin, if you love the state of comics at the moment, you may want to look away. If you read on, then get ready for a bucket full of vitriol, and feel free to return fire and tell me I'm wrong.

Looks "epic".
I won't be reading.
I've been saying this for a while, but recent comics just haven't been cutting the mustard in my book. I'm not saying all comics, but the vast majority put out by Marvel and DC are definitely in this boat. Recent reviews of cross-over books have demonstrated to me that we are no longer going for decent story and characterisation, rather flashy art, derivative stories without substance, and death of popular characters.
I've given this list before, but here are the core gripes I have with comics in 2012 (and it goes back a few years):

  • Art focussing on splash pages and panels with little space for plot or dialogue.
  • Art that focusses on irrelevant detail or realism, without giving clear indications of movement so instead of a dynamic image, we get a static image akin to a photo (I'm not talking "phototracing" specifically, but that's the extreme case).
  • Decompressed stories that take six months to do what should take one or two.
  • Stories by fans, for fans, with no clear entry point to the characters or continuity.
  • Reboots/Relaunches/Resets that set out to make the books readable and inside a year include most of the continuity we already had, but only confuse things further.
  • Any book that aims to "dance between the raindrops of continuity" (or milk fans for every cent they can, using nostalgia as a pry-bar on their wallets). Similarly, any story written just to explain any contradictions in continuity. I'll harp on the contradiction existing, but that's a gripe for the second story. If it's bad enough to need a third story to fix it, then the third story needs to get it perfect.
  • Characters being killed and then resurrected.
  • Lack of new characters.
  • Crossovers/Events.
I'm sure these aren't things that I'm alone on. I'm sure that every one of these problems can be fixed. I'm sure that there are three simple explanations for each one of these complaints. I'm sure that these problems are stopping comics from being more popular.

Splash Pages and Decompressed Storytelling
A whole page for exposition on one panel.
At least we learn who the character is.
These two go hand in hand. Logically if you increase the number of splash pages and splash panels, decrease the amount of dialogue or plot per panel, and keep the page count the same, you end up with either shorter stories or stories drawn out over a longer period of time. That doesn't mean you can't do decompressed stories without dropping panel counts, and upping splash art. You can, it just means that you pack in a lot more irrelevant information. So why do it? Arguably it was driven by the desire to produce more "cinematic" comics, the likes of Joss Whedon and JMS writing for comics, "realisim", and an attempt to respond to the surging popularity of Manga.

Crap. Tell the truth, a pause where nothing changes before getting to the punchline of a moment works great in cinema and TV because they have time built in. Comics don't. You took 2 or 3 panels (half a page seems to be what this normally takes - so 1/44th of the book) to set up a "moment". Was it really memorable? Did I cry, laugh out loud, or otherwise have an emotive response (other than to curse such "moments"? No? Wasted. Time in comics is typically "this then this" with the availability of "several hours earlier" or "two weeks later" type captions. Human "moments" can still be done with that, it just has to either be a bit less subtle (exposition via thoughts, captions, or speech always worked for Stan Lee), or be that much better at your craft. (Can you draw a wry smile? Can you draw someone being shocked, or chuckling in the corner of a panel - you've got it worked out then)

Half a page. For awkward silence.
No clue who anyone is.
Here's another reason decompressed stories are easier: you don't need as many ideas for a story, just more ideas for pacing the story. For some people 10 pages of dialogue about the problem is much easier to come up with than 10 pages of resolving the problem (for better or worse). You want comics that sound like the way people talk in cinema and TV, okay, but don't you want the plot that goes with that?

Look, Splash panels and pages are a good thing: when used correctly. Not every page should be a splash. Not every page should be four panels or less. Splash-art has existed for decades, but it was still used to tell us something.
How do you use splash-art right? Try picking up the Peter David X-Factor Visionaries. Plenty of splash art. plenty of plot advancement, plenty of strong characterisation, and plenty of fun. The trick is to make sure that you explain what's happening, and why. This isn't cinema. It's also not the 1960s where absolutely everything was spelled out on the page, to the point that you really struggled to get through more than two issues at a time.
No idea who anyone is, but that
blonde woman seems like leadership
material. Also note things happen.
If you want to see decompression in action, go pick up the first issue of Supergirl from the New 52. Should have taken about 3 pages for that story. Pick up Bendis' entire run on the Avengers books from Disassembled through to Siege. There's really only four stories there: Disassembled, Civil War (which he didn't write), Secret Invasion, and Siege. Took him how many years for that? New Avengers #1 through Siege was one character arc for Sentry. And at the end of the day, there was no real development (He's crazy, maybe he's better, no he's worse than ever, boom he's dead).

What's the solution? Cut the splash pages and panels back. There's not ever going to be a hard and fast rule for this, but if you take less than 10 minutes on an issue, think about the splash pages. Think about whether we need the n-th degree of detail on a cloud in the background, or whether we can use that space to advance the plot. If digital art hasn't made the trivial background details simpler and more automated to produce, we need to question why it's there. More importantly keep in mind that time doesn't pass naturally in comic books. It can't be made to. Can't do it in a novel either. Rather than try and shoe-horn it in, acknowledge that, and work with it.

Static Art vs Dynamic Art

Iron Patriot is moving, is everyone else just posing though?
Pick up a comic from 2012 from almost any "big name" artist. Now pick up a comic from 1980 from anyone. Notice anything different? Yep the colouring is better in 2012. The 2012 paper quality is better. The 2012 inking and shading look better. Lighting effects look more realistic in 2012. For that matter, the people look a bit more realistic in 2012. And the 2012 incarnation doesn't want you to see where anyone came from, or where they were going to.
So Colossus has tried a haymaker (no effect) and Shaw
knocks him across the room. Clear what happened.
Anyone else see the problem? This isn't an illustrated novel where the pictures are there to help you understand what things look like. This isn't a cartoon, TV show, or movie. This is a comic. The picture is absolutely important. It tells me what's happening (but not necessarily why). It tells me who's involved, their mood, what they're wearing, whether they're hurt or not, where they are, and also what things look like. It also tells me how things interact. Illustrated novels do the majority of this by describing with words. Cinema, television, and cartoons do it by showing you moving pictures. Comics are unique in that they are a halfway medium. The need to show you how things move. Not doing that is the same as giving you a set of photographs and telling you what people are saying. It almost works, but you lose the dynamic nature of the story.

This will seem picky to a lot of people, especially anyone who started reading in the last ten years. It is absolutely not a trivial issue though, and it's one we fans have caused by demanding better art. It's also absolutely simple to fix. Integrating it cleanly with the modern art style will take a little bit of work, but it's something to fix. Alternatively, don't put it back in and we'll have everyone talking about how they got places, or why they're ducking someone's fist. It wasn't elegant in the 1960s, and it won't be any better now.

By Fans, For Fans
We get an homage, a retcon, and something
only fans care about. All in one.
This has been building for decades. From the moment you had Batman, Superman, or Spiderman fans writing the stories, or doing the artwork, you had to run the risk that the book became more insular. I'm not saying I could do any better (I'm fairly certain that I couldn't), but when your knowledge of the character is getting in the way of trying a new kind of story for that character, when you won't let the character develop, mature, retire, or stay dead, there's a problem.

Derivative stories are a gold mine for anyone who's been a fan. Infinite Crisis follows on from Crisis On Infinite Earths. The 1990s Spider-man Clone Saga follows on from a short story arc in the 1970s. X-Men Schism is a monumental derivative of every Wolverine vs Cyclops argument (and Professor X vs Magneto discussion) that didn't involve their love lives. Flashpoint is derivative of Age of Apocalypse (and they aren't even from the same company). Creatively going to these same wells over and over again bleeds the shared universes dry. Because we know we've seen it all before. We're changing details down in the weeds. This time it's a fight over a keg of beer, that time it's a fight over how ate the last piece of cake. By all means, see if there are story ideas that come out of past events, but don't make those the only stories, and don't justify them as a "logical extension" of a past story. The logical extension to any past story is the one that followed it.

No excuse for this one.
On another front, it's not a bad thing to have the characters progress and change (or even regress) if it's in line with what we know of the character. It is a bad thing to have them return to an earlier incarnation if only to suit the whims of a writer or editor. Yes, this is going to be about One More Day. Editorially mandated, "One More Day" is a Sider-man story that deals with Peter Parker's last ditch effort to try and save his beloved Aunt May at the cost of his marriage in a deal with a devil. Because all his attempts in Back In Black failed. Including trying to enlist super-science and magic.

In reality, the story exists for no other reason than to break up Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker's marriage. Because then EIC at Marvel Joe Quesada wanted it done. The reasons given were along the lines of "the marriage was a bad idea, we want to undo that and have a chance to tell single Peter stories". We had Single Peter. From 1962-1987. If the marriage was a bad idea, and we would get fresh ideas from a single Peter Parker, why were those single Peter stories tired and stale by 1987? And why is it better to have a 30+ year old man running around acting like a cad than a 30 year old man happily married? Because the characters weren't being done justice? How about that writers didn't know what to do, and editorial took an easy option that also aligned with what they, as fans, recalled were "better" stories.

Here's one solution to stopping the derivative work, and stopping the contiual cycle of character's marital statuses and who's been resurrected lately: anything from here on out stays, and people learn from their experience. Spider-man dies that's it. Next time someone uses Lois Lane to get to Superman he issues an ultimatum - hurt Lois and you die. There are decades worth of stories with the characters you know and love doing what you want to recall them doing. Go read those, and get out of the way of progress. Don't make me read an alternate (Ultimate) universe story, just do that in the main continuity.

They don't have to suck, they do need
to stay relevant.
At the moment, these things get used when the continuity of a character, series, or universe becomes too complex to easily follow, has contradictions, is so overwhelming that it distracts readers, or a major change is seen as needed to allow the writers to tell good stories. Also, sales bumps from a rebranding/reboot.
Of those reasons, I'd agree with straightening out contradictions (if it absolutely must be revisited, and we aren't essentially getting an interruption to other storytelling just to clear things up), and doing what's needed to allow writers to tell good stories.
Here's what I see the problems as being:
  • Throwing everything out and starting again every 5 years is a sure way to annoy people that read that long. We know we'll get some of the same stories again, and we don't want them.
  • It inevitably ends up as another piece of continuity that needs to be explained.
  • It's best not to draw more attention to a contradiction than is absolutely necessary. If you never point out the contradiction, and the complaining is minimal - who cares?
  • It prevents characters from progressing.
Can we solve this? Again - everything that happens from here on out is fixed. Death is death. Characters act based on their years of experience. They don't back down from who they are.

Or... keep the continuity you want. Peter Parker never married Mary Jane and just lives with her. He calls her his "wife" as shorthand for "de facto partner" or as a joke. Batman never disappeared through time while Dick Grayson took up his mantle, Bruce just had a vacation. Read the story how you want, don't have your hands tied by some guy who was reading Green Lantern before John Stewart existed. Yes this will be problematic for you, but Id be shocked if Grant Morrisson doesn't view this as your responsibility as a fan. It's your story take it however you choose to.

Continuity Dancers
You've been warned.
The less I can say about this the better, but the phrase "dancing between the raindrops of continuity" is  somewhat of a Marvel special, and shorthand for "we want you to buy this based purely on nostalgia." Ignoring the completely cynical nature of this type of publishing here's the core problems:

  • Some poor person has to find a spare 30 seconds of compressed continuity that they can slot some sort of story into.
  • You know when it's set, so if you buy this you know what the status quo is on entering and exiting the story.
  • There is no room for concern over anyone's wellbeing to exist.

I'll modify that last point mildly. There can be room for concern if you insert a new character. And we don't know from any advance media (be it an interview, or solicitation for a new story) whether they'll survive or not.

Barring that happy situation, all we have is a poor retcon that changes nothing, and a (likely) poor fanfic that tells some unnecessary tale or other.

The solution to this is blindingly simple: don't publish it, don't buy it. We had the publishers trying to prise every last dollar from us in the 190s. Look how that ended.

A Character Dies
How long did this last? 'Nuff Said.
There comes a time in the life of more or less every character that they've been made to behave so appallingly, writers have so little to do with them, or they've been underused for so long that there's only one outcome: death. And much of the time, it's not a bad thing. No, the bad thing is... that they come back.
Sometimes it's obvious that a character is only dying so that they can come back. Normally this is when a whole team of characters is killed. Oftentimes you can see a character that's deviated a long way from what people liked about them, and then you can tell they're up for death. But if they are at all popular, or weren't created just to be killed they'll be back. Sometimes in the same issue.
The prevalence of this is such that Wikipedia have this list.
If we truly want realistic comics (as realistic as you can get with magic, gods, space aliens, mutants, and all kinds of other super-powered folk about), then death is death. You kill a character, they can't come back. You can't have an alternate universe version step in and take over, you can't bring them back via science, or magic. They're dead. Have an afterlife, have their adventures in hell/heaven/wherever for a time. Have people communicate with them via mediums. Don't bring them back from the dead. Bringing them back just leads us all to speculate when they'll be back (movies related to the character are a good bet) which defeats the dramatic purpose of them dying in the first place. We may not know they're coming back., but we do know they'l be coming back.

The only way to solve this is if we can stop the resurrections. And then stop the mindless killing policies in place. If you want to ever use a character again, you don't kill them, crippling and maiming only.

New Characters
This guy connected? This guy?
New characters that succeed and survive these days (and that are part of main continuity and not creator owned) are rare these days. Partly because they take a while to connect with the audience over an established character, partly because writers would rather spend the time and effort on something that they own rights to, and partly because many writers these days are just not good at establishing and developing characters. Keep in mind that if I'm right and comics are being produced by fans, for fans, then there's no reason for any new characters. Ever.

But by not having new characters we're doomed to keep telling variations on the same stories. Acording to Christopher Booker there are only 7 basic stories. According to me, comics tend to use about 6 of these, and one of those infrequently. And I can handle that level of variety. I can't handle the same story with the same core roster of characters every time. So let's throw some new characters in. My might even end up using all 7 story archetypes.
Assuming you don't think this is a problem, please explain why Wolverine appears in so many comics. Or Batman. Or Spider-man. Sure they help sell more books. But that also means fewer books without them included, and less page space for other characters. Which means the page space left is divided among the next most popular tier of characters. And then the next. So we get 15 different variants on Wolverine and Friends. Great if you like Wolverine. Everyone else, not so much.
All because new characters don't sell, or at least not as well as established characters. Except that The Walking Dead is one of the most popular collected edition books out there, and has its very own TV show. Except that Invincible is still here years later, and still better than much of the dross Marvel and DC churn out. Except that many "popular" characters hit troughs in popularity and stay there until resurrected by decent creative teams.
So what's the real reason? Collectively, we fear change. Spider-man can't have all these new powers. He can't have organic webbing. He can't have stingers. Couple years later, he can't not have those things, despite how infrequently some were used. We can't leave that character dead.
And when we do try an origin it's awful. Simply awful. That's one key thing reading the New 52 omnibus drove home.

And that is why we absolutely must drive character and plot progress to the point that we can retire and replace all the characters we know and love. It's that, or we must all do a much better job of promoting the smaller titles that do include new characters. And that means breaking up the Marvel/DC duopoly. Because those two aren't going to change things. If they can't grow the market, the only option they have is to maintain the stranglehold they have.

Did not suck. Had ramifications. Just sayin'.
I know. These aren't new. They've been going in something resembling their current form since the 1980s. But they weren't always so awful as they are now. Shadowland should have been a Daredevil arc. Fear Itself was really just a Thor story (once you strip out Bucky not dying, and The Worthy). Blackest Night was just a Green Lantern story. Why did we have to make an event out of it? Why did so many titles have to drop what they were doing to get on board? There's no creative reason. In a shared universe all it needs to take is that an editorial caption pops up one day to say something is after the events in another book. That's what used to happen.

Then marketing folk got involved. And don't get me wrong, there were plenty of bad crossovers in the past, and plenty of bad events. Plenty that should have ended differently. But we didn't get two or three bad Crossovers/Events per year. And each one didn't interrupt half the ongoing storylines of the company. When that did happen, the stories were frequently bad. Just go read the Inferno Crossovers Omnibus. It has little to do with the main story, and has a definite air of milking a cash cow. On the other hand go read the X-Men Fatal Attractions crossover. That was one issue of each X-Men book (excluding Cable from memory), and you could read any one of those issues without reading the other parts of the crossover. If we must have events, and we must have crossovers, that's what we should be doing. Each book is self contained, but put them together and you get a great read. That's what the EICs and similar promise us all the time with crossovers and events nowadays. But realistically, if you didn't read Fear Itself, Journey Into Mystery didn't make a lot of sense. If you did read Final Crisis, you had to read some of the ancillary tie-ins.

Sucked. Funny thing: it's the issue
of X-Men after Fatal Attractions.
The part that strikes me as being funniest is that whenever creators go for "epic" moments, they come off as contrived and superficial (Wasp dying in Secret Invasion made no sense). When they let things happen without trying to throw a spotlight on it, they generally connect and become memorable (Thor bringing Loki back to Asgard during JMS run on the book sticks out as a good moment).

It's not hard to fix from a creative point of view. It's hard to fix from a sales point o view. Sell the crap out of all the books in your line by making them largely good, and knock this off, and it's not an issue anymore.

What's Right
Having laid bare my opinion of what's wrong with comics in 2012, I feel I at least owe a statement on what I like.
I have a lot of time for anyone who wants to do something that is creator owned. Not because I support Creator Rights, but because I believe that it's actually allowing variety. I also believe that it brings out the higher levels of creativity in writers and artists. They aren't bound to produce creative shorthand for characters with decades of printed history. They can show us that they truly are artistic people.
I have a lot of time for comics that aren't about superheroes. Or at least comics that balance the ledger. Not because I'm anti-superhero, but because there's more than one way to tell a story, and more than one way to connect with an audience.
I like that digital comics are becoming popular. I may still think them a far different (and inferior) medium than their printed counterparts, but I acknowledge that people are starting to plan for the digital age.
I like that comic book adaptations are a source to be mined for the film industry. I don't have to watch them all, and I don't have to like them all, but I have a way to see the characters I know in a way that can be readily incorporated into the public psyche. Which gives me hope that there's a way to do comic books so that they will connect with more people.
I like that we have moved on from the failed bastions of creativity that ruined so many characters in the 1990s. We may have replaced them with people that aren't a lot better, but we're moving in the right direction.

What I don't want to do is blame anyone. We all have different tastes, and different reasons for buying different books. Sometimes we buy a book that we know is bad because we want to poke fun, or we want something that's ridiculous to take our minds off the day to day concerns. That's fine. You don't have to justify anything to me or anyone other than yourself. But let's not pretend that what we have before us are, in general, the best comics we'll ever get.

If you want to look at the golden utopia solution to the ills above, I direct you to a blog from Jim Shooter (yes, that Jim Shooter). Those of you following Mr Shooter's blog may find that some of what I've listed lines up with things Jim has written about in the past. And I agree with many things he says about the quality and future of comics based on where we are now. I also believe we can make things better.