Monday, August 11, 2008

Smug Alert—The Secret Crisis Behind DC & Marvel Comics

FanBoyWonder wants to acknowledge a REALLY good essay by Travis at Film Fodder Comics --“What’s Wrong At Both Marvel and DC?” in which he cleverly and unflinchingly dissects the ...underperformance of this summer’s two comic book “events”—Final Crisis at DC Comics by writer Grant Morrison and Marvel Comics’ Secret Invasion by writer Brian Michael Bendis.

We encourage you all to read Travis’ essay then come back here for our take—fully acknowledging Travis’ great commentary as the springboard for our own thoughts on the matter.

Below we excerpt three key points from Travis but again, it’s not our intent to distort his point by omission so we do encourage you to read his essay in full, then come back here for our Two Dollar and 99 Cents.

Travis’ Upshot:

“There is a relatively new situation going on at both companies. DC has a rather different method of planning stories, in that tons of people cram into a room and plot out the direction of a title or character for a year or three. Marvel tended to be a little more free-wheeling, but lately they have adopted more of the meeting syndrome as well, to mixed results. The one big change to all of this recently is that both companies are trying their hand at crafting an in-depth meta-story involving the entirety of their respective shared universes, but the results are not going well.”

Plug 'n play:

“With both of these writers [Morrison and Bendis], we have a case of someone getting stuck on an idea and getting away with writing a few things, and then waiting, biding their time until they could get enough influence over enough titles to carry out the rest of their plan. We are dealing with two large stories that are consuming more than their fair share of shared-universe comic pages (not quite as much at DC) to play out an old, old idea by a tired writer who keeps his ideas in the back of his head, waiting for the chance to plug them in wherever he can make them fit.”

And finally:

“While crafting a meta-story is not in itself a bad idea, it is hard to do in cinematic style. The most comfortable place for that is TV. It can be accomplished in comics, but it takes more cohesive planning and better story-telling than either of the two companies are managing. Geoff Johns proves the exception because he is not doing a hyped "special event" outside the normal monthly titles. Instead, his narrative is crafted within each title, with organic implications for other places in the shared universe. Other writers are free to take some of those implications and run with them, incorporated into the other titles, and most of the good writers do so, which makes for a natural meta-story in collaboration with the massive number of other creative people who are playing in the same sandbox and borrowing the same toys, which might be affected by the changes implied in his titles. The end result is a gripping narrative with meaningful events and character growth. With the Bendis and Morrison titles, we get hyped marketing that the characters will be changed forever... until their next event which shatters all of your preconceived notions, ad infinitum.”

FanBoyWonder has had this essay on the brain all weekend but it wasn’t until we watched a re-run of South Park that it came to us in a bolt of lightning. DC and Marvel Comics are at a crossroads with both their “events” They stand in the eye of the storm—the perfect storm of self-satisfaction. In a word—SMUG!

For anyone who didn’t catch the classic South Park Episode “Smug Alert the upshot of the episode is that when Kyle’s dad buys a hybrid, he becomes so self-satisfied and preachy and obvlious to reality that he starts to enjoy the smell of his own farts. Others in town quickly follow suit resulting in a massive “smug storm.”

The problem as we see it has been a long time in building and certainly not entirely the fault of either writers Morrison or Bendis—although they are certainly a large symptom of the problem. In a nutshell, comic book storytelling, its storytellers and comic book fans have come to take themselves WAY too seriously.

It wasn’t so bad when “comic books” first became “graphic novels.” Everyone wants a little respect, comics fans are no exception so it was nice to have our art form recognized and respected at long last.

From ‘Characters’ to ‘Properties’

However, as fans became more “sophisticated”—or at least older—the Big two publishers—DC and Marvel seemed to lose sight of the actual storytelling—“characters” became “properties” and publishing took a back seat to movies, media and merchandising.

So comic books have found themselves relegated to the “kids table” at their own banquet. Consequently, there’s been much less “adult supervision” by DC and Marvel’s parent companies and so long as the books were published and they didn’t lose too much money, big corporate didn’t care.

Thus the comic book star system grabbed hold of the industry with a python-like grip. The star system had been born long before this current “Secret Crisis” to be sure but “talents” like Mr. Morrison and Mr. Bendis have helped fuel this star into a “supernova” of hubris at the same time that comic book galaxy is dramatically shrinking.

To their credit, these stars DO come to the comic book kids table with a vision and ideas—some brilliant, others hopelessly flawed—but ideas nonetheless. This is much to the relief of current management which by all outward appearances and recent track record, management appears to be totally devoid of idea or vision beyond “sell, sell, sell!”

Thus with the aide and abetment of the publishers, the star system of writers does not write for their audience but for their own amusement—to express THEIR vision of the (comics) universe as they see it. This comes much to the consternation of the lower profile but more reliable writers in the comics bullpen—the age old resentment of show horses vs. workhorses.

Under the current alignment of the “stars,” these high-profile hacks don’t care or don’t know what stories came before them because it doesn’t matter—they are living in the now because they are in the know. Their universe is the six-to-eight issues it takes to fill a trade.

We the long-time reader/customer are ridiculed for not liking what’s being sold to us— for “not getting it.” This time it really IS like nothing that’s ever been done before—their story is REALLY sophisticated so please don’t bother them with questions of quality control or disagreements on direction. Don’t you know who they are?

Now that’s just SMUG!

Of course, we the reader are not exempt from criticism. We may not like what they are selling but we’ve been buying it so we are as much a part of the problem as anything. We enable the problem.

So what’s the Secret Crisis? There’s a major Smug Storm closing in on the horizon. It’s headed down the pretentious turnpike, with its many-headed crossover titles sucking up all of the readers’ disposable income and good will until….like San Francisco in the South Park universe…the Big Two of DC and Marvel Comics disappear completely up their own…anal orifices.


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