Tim Marchman, best known as a sports writer for the mostly defunct New York Sun, trashed the modern comics industry in what was supposed to be a Wall Street Journal review of the book Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics. I’ll skip over his most egregious errors, ably countered by Leaping Tall Buildings co-author Seth Kushner to discuss one thing that’s often been said by industry observers and critics: superhero comics are simply too insular and convoluted to new readers. Marchman provided his opinion on the matter…
If no cultural barrier prevents a public that clearly loves its superheroes from picking up a new “Avengers” comic, why don’t more people do so? The main reasons are obvious: It is for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, and it is clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology.
In a much hyped series from Marvel Comics this summer, for example, the Avengers fight the X-Men for inscrutable reasons having to do with a mysterious planet-devouring cosmic force, a plot that makes no sense to anyone not familiar with ancient Marvel epics like “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” The story is told in two titles, one called “Avengers vs. X-Men,” with a big “AvX” logo on the front, and the other called “AvX,” with a big “Avengers vs. X-Men” logo on the front, presumably so you can keep them straight.
This is a legitimate concern, although it’s wrong to suggest that it’s exclusive to this sub-genre. Most art forms feature references to other work, best appreciated by those familiar with the original sources. Is asking a new consumer to understand what Ultimate Avengers Volume 3 is in the context of Marvel publishing really more daunting than figuring out how a Jimi Hendrix box set fits in his discography? Abstract art tends to feature responses to other abstract art, rap music references feuds between musicians, and the typical sports fans have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of their franchise, while also well-versed in other teams.
While it’s more convoluted, comic book fans do seem to prefer the shared universe. They like team books, crossovers and crossovers between team books. The best-selling titles of recent years tend to be event books, which tie into multiple ongoing franchises. And this is spreading into comic book adaptations. The Avengers just made a lot of money as a super-sequel to four different film franchises.
It’s difficult to keep these things entirely simple from a narrative perspective. The longer a story continues, the more convoluted it gets. And this is a medium in which a reader can follow several intersecting series.
There isn’t a perfect solution. Marvel and DC could splinter the universes, so instead of having a DC Universe consisting of 52 monthly titles, you could have a dozen or so universes consisting of a handful of monthly titles. That way, each world would be easier to follow. But this requires readers to remember the differences between one fictional universe and another just to understand basic plot points. For example, if a character is dead in one line of books and alive in another, it can get very confusing for long-time readers instead of just the newcomers.
Both companies could feature significant reductions in the amount of material they produce. It would be easier to follow the DC Universe if the company only published ten books a month. Since the vast majority of currently published titles are profitable, this would result in a loss in income, as well as good people losing their jobs. So it would alienate the fans of the out of work professionals, as well as readers of unnecessarily cancelled titles. And the results would still be fairly complex.
Some have suggested doing away with the shared universe entirely, so that every book would be self-contained. That makes team-ups like the Avengers movie impossible, as well as spinoff projects, which require multiple ongoing titles. And there would still be references to the old universe, in a medium reliant of visual shorthand. Readers of a Batman comic will be expected to know that Bane and Scarecrow are supposed to be the bad guys. Readers of the X-Men will be expected to know a little bit about the history of the Dark Phoenix.
Both Marvel and DC have to figure out how to keep the fans they have, while drawing in new readers. That in turn is complicated by the many types of new readers. And that’s something every art form has to deal with.