Tuesday, 3 January 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Nine)

I've touched on this before, but probably without the right depth. DC killed off Superman, then brought him back. The great con about this was that it had happened several times during the Silver Age of comics; they were called 'imaginary stories', which, I think you'll agree, is a bizarre description for something that is already fictional. This modern age death was hype and commercialism gone mad and even more ironic is that DC brought back the same old Superman; not new, not improved, no new costume or powers - just Superman.
Twice more during my tenure at CI did a publisher try and do a similar thing. The Beano got a lot of press for the new-look Dennis the Menace; there was even serious debate about the whys and wherefores of doing it. The makeover lasted ONE issue and was really just one of a series of jolly japes and wheezes by DC Thomson to keep The Beano in the human consciousness.
The other bit of pseudo-hype happened in the early 1990s and was also perpetrated by DC Comics. It involved Batman and the apparent new look he was receiving. Out was the old bat costume, in was a new body-armoured, hi-tech hero. There was a comics public outcry when we released the news and this allowed Dez Skinn to get on his soapbox and explain in no uncertain terms to the braying public that this was a gimmick, a publicity stunt, and that Batman would not be changing permanently; he would be back as normal within a year.

The word of God had been spoken and the masses accepted his diatribe. However, one young wannabe journalist in Devon took serious umbrage to this and reeled off a letter to CI admonishing Skinn on a number of things, not least taking away the pleasure and innocence of the reader. She accused Skinn of using CI to look clever and then sadly went off in a direction that left an initially excellently scathing letter in tatters. She spent half the letter explaining why she liked the new Batman and suggested that Skinn apologise to her in ten years when she's been proved right.

Batman was back as his old self within a year.

The point I'm trying to illustrate is that comics people aren't stupid; maybe a little short sighted, but not idiots. Sometimes you need to shake up stuff. A snow globe looks pretty, gets a boost when you shake it, but settles back down to conformity after a while - this is comics. The bread and butter of comics journalists is when the snow globe has been shook. Anybody calling themselves a comics journalist or commentator knows this and if they don't they can't call themselves serious. Even comics journalism is governed by the law of the illusion of change. Pick up any comics magazine of the last 20 years and the bulk of it is news about imaginary stories. New looks, new villains, new writers, artists, supporting cast - the list is endless and the regurgitation of it is relentless.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to realise this. The X-Men went through a number of new-looks and directions in its initial 66 issue run; but this was just decoration. Spider-Man got a black costume in the 1980s and it seemed that Marvel was intent to keep it, but Spidey went back to his red, blue and web look, eventually. He is an icon, after all.

DC were the first and really only publisher to really change things, but even that was just the most elaborate 'illusion of change' ever tried and it was one of the first. I've mentioned Crisis on Infinite Earths elsewhere, but this re-invented and re-launched the DC Universe. Gave us new heroes, new costumes, old heroes with new identities and it tried to reinvent itself as another Marvel universe (which, to my knowledge has never ever had to reinvent itself out of necessity). Shared universes work better when they are small and compact, not sprawling and impenetrable like DC's had become (I believe there was something like 15 alternative dimensions operating simultaneously at any one point; Earths 1 thru 10, A, B, C, D, X and a few others). But this was only down to the people running comics companies being comics fans themselves.

Most of DC's hype was unnecessary; they could have just re-launched without trying to appease the wishes of a small minority of hard core fans. It would have worked just as well. But, they chose to produce the equivalent of 15 standard sized comics to feature just about every character that has ever appeared in a DC comic to give it 'closure'. It worked, but over the 25 years since it happened the then new readers are now as jaded and confused as their predecessors. Which is why, presumably, DC did the reinvention thing again in 2011.

I first learned about DC's plans to do it again earlier this year [2011], but dismissed them as just more hyperbole. Having avoided any news about it like the plague, I write this with no real idea of what is happening or going to happen, only that Superman has been reinvented, this time without the trunks outside his tights. The idea is to make DC the comics company of choice for the 21st century - to attract new readers and a new generation of comics fans. Good luck to them, because at $3.99 an issue the most immediate thing prohibiting them is the price.

The thing about re-launching titles or starting again is that there is a perverse sense of loyalty to the numbering of a comic series. DC did this once before, but kept the actual number of the comic prominent. this was issue number 1 for you new kids, but issue number 751 for those of you that have been reading it for a while.

I think the thing that allowed Dez Skinn and I to be better comics journalists was that we understood how the machine worked, but we were rarely caught up in the hype. We looked forward to major events like everyone else; we just didn't allow our sense of reality to be lost. For a few years, CI had some of the most subversive writing in it you could imagine. To be able to be objective about comics you have to be able to rise above it and be irreverent and there are few who can do that and the rest of the industry doesn't like them because they call a spade a spade.

People who have worked as 'comics journalists' and there are few of us, are either sycophants or mavericks. Some will be fed stories continuously and will regurgitate to please the people who have little or no loyalty to them for all the hard work they do for nothing; the mavericks will forever be a thorn in the sides of marketing executives, because they don't play by the rules. Mavericks don't hack phones or bribe people, but they often ask the missing question from the who-what-where and when mantra - why?

The Comics Journal, Borderline and for a while Comics International have or were never afraid to ask difficult questions. They were reporting on a part of the entertainment industry and the people producing comics - from the publishers to the creators - were just as culpable for what they do than a film producer or TV network exec is. The private life of comics is rarely delved into; as I've said, fans don't want it and publishers are ambivalent because any publicity is good publicity. When Image Comics started there was a feeling that comics creators were the new rock stars and we'd hear about Todd McFarlane buying baseballs, or Rob Liefeld starring in a Levi's advert. Being an artist in comics was a short-lived road to stardom. Yet, it was the comics buying public who were fooled by this Will'o' th'wisp phenomena; they bought into it and then started to get upset when their real life heroes started being reported in a lesser light.

I was at a big comics convention at Alexandra Palace in the mid 1990s. One of the huge rising stars of comics, Simon Bisley, was there. He was showing off his batmobile, what he bought with all the money he had been making. He was also doing sketches and signings for fans and when the time came for him to stop, he stopped. There was maybe a half dozen people left in the queue and he could have taken an extra 10 minutes to sign a few comics; but he didn't and was quite arrogant about it, especially to a young lad at the end of the queue who was upset at missing the chance of meeting one of his heroes. Bisley laughed at this - he was so rock and roll.

CI never ran this story; Dez felt that it painted a picture of creators that people didn't want to see - he had also just got friendly with the artist.

The point is, comics fans don't like journalists like I was; they do not want the real world entering their fantasy; but someone has to do it. Comics journalism isn't about announcing that Lex Luthor will be of Iranian origin; it's about reporting on the industry - all aspects, even the ones you might feel uncomfortable with.

Next up: the final section begins...


  1. craigjohnsonesq@aol.com5 January 2012 at 10:37

    Someone made an interesting comment on Bleeding Cool yesterday, I think, when Rich J got burned by Diamond posting a fake Batman/Spider-Man story on an internal website they suspected he has trawling for stories and he ran it as a scoop, only to have to climbdown later...

    Basically in that he used to nose out stories and dig behind the scenes but now seems to just regurgitate fed press releases, albeit just before they are released generally, presumably he's being played by Marvel/DC to hype up their projects.

    I miss the good old days of penetrating questions being asked. Possibly this is why I've pretty much moved away from comics websites myself in the last few years.

  2. I agree with Craig that their seems to have been a real drop in the 'insider' scoops from Mr Johnson, but I don't know if it's just him. I don't remember the last time I saw a real scoop on AICN, and most of the interesting film tidbits I've seen have been little throwaway comments from [say] Drew Mcweeny or Devin Faraci (and these tend to be little remarks like 'I heard that John Carter has scored very highly with test audiences', and/or insider comments posted in reply to articles). The one exception might be Nikki Finke, but then we could debate about who's pockets she is in.

    I don't know if this is reflective of corporate tightening-up or fans just not being interested in these kinds of stories. I'm interested, but then, I'm an old fish wife with a stack of Batman comics under the mattress.