Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Problem with Comics aka The Six Percent Situation

It’s no secret that comic book sales are down. Everyone has their theories why, ranging from the cost of the books themselves to inaccessible individual issues being just one incomplete chapter of a five part made for the collected edition, and the inability for the casual fan to find comics anywhere outside of the direct market.

It really is a little bit of all of that, but the bigger problem lies in the ability to create newer and younger fans. Comics used to be impulse buys for kids. Shopping at the grocery store with mom and dad or going to the corner store to pick up a gallon of milk and the spinner racks were there, luring young readers to the exciting covers featuring the new thrilling adventures of Batman, Spider-Man and others. Covers also used to have something to do with the actual story inside the comic, a lost art that has been replaced with glorified pin up shots of characters that more often than not, don’t appear in the comic book featuring their name.

While fans and insiders debate the reality of having comic books sold at Wal Mart (a company named Kick Star Comics plans to do just that) or whether going digital with save the industry the bigger problem lies in the books that are being published.

Toys R Us recently started carrying a larger stock of comic books from several publishers and some limited titles appear in book stores but the variety and accessibility of the books is still limited in the mass market. But let’s say a ten year old with the help of their parents somehow stumbles upon a selection at a Toys R Us or even a local comic shop. What then?

Both major comic book publishers have attempted to create comic books specifically designed for younger readers. The Johnny DC line from DC Comic and the Marvel Adventures line from Marvel feature several of the marquis players from both companies in single issue stories that don’t go over board in violence, gore, excessive language or sexuality. But most kids who want to read comics already know they aren’t the ‘real’ thing. The ‘real’ Avengers and the ‘real’ Green Lantern could very likely raise an eyebrow of any parents remembering what comics were like in their day. From the harsher language to excessive violence and newfound obsession with gore whether it’s a man being ripped in half with their innards showing (Marvel Comics The Siege featuring characters like Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man) or a man blowing his brains out in a full page panel (DC Comics Green Lantern). The comics of our youth, that survived and flourished as ‘All Ages’ material for decades have slammed the door in the faces of the market that made them a success and have increasingly catered to a shrinking market of adult male fans who feel that because they’ve grown up and have more mature interests the heroes of their youth have to do the same.

The mentality is basically the equivalent of a 30 year old man who still loves the character of Grover on Sesame Street but feels it’s too ‘dumbed down’ for them. So they decide to have Grover start swearing, seducing Zoe and finally tired of Oscar’s attitude, beats the grouch within an inch of his life. There are comic books where characters grow, experience life changes which influence the character and are aimed at a more adult audience. One of them, The Walking Dead, has been adapted into an equally popular television show. The difference is that the corporate properties for DC Time Warner (Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman) and Marvel Disney (Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk) exist to serve more than just the narrow minded audience that believes they own the properties. Like The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse and Sesame Street characters they’re meant to be enjoyed for what they are, not morphed into twisted versions where it’s arguable whether the character can actually be called heroes.

No one could ask for a better example of a property being wrestled away from an All Ages audience to a ‘fanboy’ audience than Invincible Iron Man. The long running Iron Man title received a name chance and a numerical reboot three years ago in anticipation of the film. Rather than focusing on the adventures of Billionaire genius Tony Stark and his high tech suit of armor alter ego, Iron Man the title (which will be resuming its old name and numbering early next year) has switched its focus to the corporate dealings of Tony Stark. A recent five issue story arc dealt with Stark suffering a near death experience, losing his memories and struggling to regain them as he tries to rebuild his tech company and his sullied name. The arc after that focused on Stark trying to use the technology that fuels his suit of armor to build a more eco friendly car.

In year’s worth of stories, the Iron Man suit was shown 6% of the time. Not 60, not even 50. Heck, not even 10. Six percent. In some issues the armor didn’t show up at all. Now the Iron Man film wasn’t full of non stop action either, but the film version was able to employ the use of charismatic Robert Downey Jr in the role of Stark. The comic version which eerily resembles actor Josh Holloway doesn’t have that advantage.

So a younger audience, enamored with the exploits of Tony Stark and his armored alter ego in two films decide to check out the comic book of the same name and they get a guy who spends his time in the boardroom planning the future of his company and designing a better brand of car. Brilliant.

Invincible Iron Man is not a good comic book. It’s got a very talented team working on the book from the editor to penciller (who relies a bit too much on photo referencing) and writer who can make these numerous monologues seem at least a bit interesting. But for what it is (and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a super hero comic book) it fails. A book like this (a book by any of the Big Two) should be accessible for readers of all ages. It should enlighten and entertain and hold ones interest so you don’t only want to read the next issue but you feel you ‘have’ to read it.

There is an audience that kids itself into thinking its good. In most cases these readers are using the exact same argument for why it fails as a sign of its success. ‘But they can do this story without even putting Stark in the armor. It’s so outside the box. It’s too good for that standard super hero drivel’. In the end that’s all you’ll get. You won’t find many people telling you why it’s a good comic book or good super hero book in particular because it isn’t. It’s a comic book where the creative team was allowed to take an existing character and twist the concept into something its not while the masses bow at the alter of ‘something different’.

The comic book industry is huge. If one looks hard enough they can find something to fit whatever peculiar tastes they may have and that’s a great thing. The problem began when people started to think that fringe tastes were the majority and that type of backwards thinking started infesting the Big Two. Now not only are comics facing a road block in terms of pricing and accessibility but current fans are being ingrained with the idea that the adventures of Tony Stark in the boardroom is anything remotely resembling entertaining and good comics. If you’re looking for a good Iron Man comic, you have to go back a dozen or so years but stories like Armor Wars and Demon in a Bottle are still readily available. Maybe one day corporate comics will go back to reaching their full potential and full audience, but we have to start saying ‘no’ to the sludge they’re peddling now before that can happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment