The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 163 | Joe Casey’s "bored as f**k" with superhero comics and he isn’t going to take it any more

Leaving Proof 163 | Joe Casey’s "bored as f**k" with superhero comics and he isn’t going to take it any more
Published on Tuesday, December 11, 2012 by
Joe Casey raised some excellent talking points about the current state of superhero comics in For Which it Stands, the companion essay to Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker. But is he right? ALSO: Links to the latest TPB and HC reviews.

In last week’s review of Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston’s Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker hardcover collection, I spent some time discussing For Which it Stands, a companion essay to the book’s comics material. Casey made some fairly insightful claims in the essay that I wanted to expound upon, especially because it intersected somewhat with my prior Leaving Proof entry on Garth Ennis’ The Boys, but seeing as how the review was about the hardcover and not really a piece about the essay, I’ve decided to spin off that discussion here. Before we go any further though, I suggest getting familiar with the essay found in both the book and the “singles” of the mini-series, either by buying the book outright or checking it out of your local library. Go on, we’ll be here when you get back. If you really can’t be bothered to do any of that, here are the two key paragraphs of Casey’s essay that will be central to our discussion today:

Years ago, I was shooting the shit with a prominent and talented comicbook writer who also happens to be a good pal, and he was relating his experiences being part of a four-man writing team on a well-received weekly superhero series (“weekly” being somewhat unique in the mainstream, especially back then). You could debate the artistic quality of this particular series, depending on your tastes, but this writer knew damn well that they weren’t exactly creating a literary masterpiece for the ages. And that admission was notaccompanied by regret or shame or any negative feelings whatsoever. But something he said did strike me as an obvious truism, something that perhaps none of us want to admit to ourselves… referring to the (relative) sales success of the series, he attributed it mostly to the following: “People just like getting their crappy superhero comics.” When he said that, I knew exactly what he meant. He wasn’t pronouncing judgment on the readability of the series or the merits of the ideas contained within, he was simply stating that the current readership of mainstream superhero comics are, to a degree, an insatiable lot—not too terribly discriminating—and they simply want to be fed on a regular basis. Quality is beside the point. Regular delivery of said “crappy” content is where it’s at. Given a choice between a mediocre superhero comicbook delivered at an endless, steady clip and a single, unpredictable shot of supreme artistic achievement… his theory suggests that most readers would choose the mediocre comicbook. And I think, in general, I agree with him.

and

The fact is, the big Work-For-Hire Publishers are currently mired in a swirling stew of strange continuity and gutless editorial control and all of the daring experimentation of the 2000’s seems like a distant memory. So to look for that pure hit of unbridled inspiration and enthusiasm at either publishing juggernaut is, at this particular moment, a horribly futile endeavor that would test anyreader’s patience to its limit. And, goddamit, it’s not just me. You can reboot your universe and have your big franchises knock the shit out of each other all you want. It just doesn’t matter.

As I’d mentioned in the review, it doesn’t take a lot of detective work to figure out that Casey is talking about DC’s 52 in the first paragraph, and that the anonymous writer and friend is one among Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Greg Rucka, and Grant Morrison—I’m going to guess it’s Waid that Casey quoted in his essay since the two of them have worked together before and from his public appearances and interviews, Waid seems like the kind of frank straight-shooter that would say something like “People just like getting their crappy superhero comics,” without intending it to be desultory to the readers. But who said what they said about which comic book is ultimately less important than the content of what was said. Will superhero comics readers buy something just because it features their favorite superheroes, regardless of quality? Are today’s mainstream superhero comics writers and artists simply assembly line workers pushing out product to satisfy a specific market demand?

To even raise those questions means that we have to make the assumption that the quality of current superhero comics is worse than they were before Casey came to the realization that today’s superhero comics leave him “bored as fuck.” Is it? It’s perhaps impossible to come to a consensus when it comes to something as subjective as comparing superhero comics from the past to today’s superhero comics. As somebody who has read more comics, old and new, than is probably mentally healthy over the course of over two-and-a-half decades, it is my observation that the very best of today’s superhero comics would probably hold up very well to the superhero comics of yesteryear, taking all the changes in technique and target audience into consideration, but I’d be surprised if many readers of my generation share these opinions on this matter, given the tone of the online public discourses one often finds.

An important element that Casey somehow manages to beat around in his essay but not really examine in depth is the idea of novelty and the role it plays in how we view superhero comics today. One of the reasons so many older readers have a tendency to pine for the comics of their youth is because of novelty’s transient quality and the desire to experience it again. Casey writes that “superhero comicbooks are sex,” and he wants to recapture that magical first time of losing his superhero comics cherry but I don’t know if that’s at all possible. Stan Lee was right when he said that “Every comic is someone’s first,” but the corollary to that is, to paraphrase Douglas Coupland, we only get one chance to fall in love with superhero comics for the first time, and many of us keep reading superhero comics because we’re looking to recreate that sensation, even as we keep compiling experiences—in comics and other superhero-themed popular entertainment—that place more and more distance between our current selves and our shared origin as the young reader, filled with wide-eyed wonder and genuine zeal, just getting into superhero comics. Creators share that itch, too, and editors and publishers have long since zeroed in on this phenomenon: Is it any surprise that series renumbering, reboots, and “reinventions” have come to dominate current superhero comics promo-speak?

I don’t think that it is definitively the case that today’s mainstream superhero comics are more boring than their forebears, or that they’ve gotten “worse” in some nebulously defined sense across time. What it is, I suspect, is that Casey and readers such as myself who are roughly in the same age range who have spent decades reading superhero comics have simply gotten bored with them through sheer overexposure, independent of their actual quality. Genre is almost beside the point. Somewhere out there is a reader who has spent the past 25 years reading nothing but “slice-of-life” indie comics and he has absolutely had it up to here with everybody trying to write the next Love and Rockets. If, by some strange twist of fate, romance comics instead of superhero comics had gone on to dominate the comics publishing scene after the US Senate’s mid-1950s crusade against horror, crime, and war comics, we would be having this discussion anyway, except we’d be talking about how DC’s reboot of the Young Romance universe is a cheap stunt meant to generate easy sales and Marvel’s latest Girl Confessions/Best Love crossover is bunk.

This isn’t to say that mainstream superhero comics are an endless wellspring of groundbreaking new ideas or that we should overlook the obvious and desperate recycling of previous successes. But to single out the Big Two for being stuck in creative stasis is akin to complaining about Activision practically remaking the same game every year with their Call of Duty video game franchise or KFC never taking any real chances with altering their original recipe fried chicken’s spice blend. These entities—Marvel, DC, Activision, and KFC—are in their respective businesses to turn a profit and whether it’s selling first-person shooter video games, fried poultry, or stories about guys in tights punching other guys in tights, when a formula sells, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will stick to a proven thing, introducing variance only in the margins to create an illusion of newness and change and to maintain a sense of contemporary relevance. As a wise and no doubt rich man once said, “You don’t mess with success.”

That economic pressures lead to a certain homogenization and standardization of mainstream superhero comics content after a period of innovation upon innovation in a wide-open market shouldn’t be a particularly unforeseeable development. Now that the comics market has stabilized to the point where Marvel and DC have an almost even split of just about three-quarters of the total volume market share after years of fluctuation, we can expect to see a focus on consolidation instead of the “daring experimentation of the 2000’s” that Casey described in his essay. Both publishers are at a place where the benefits of using potentially revolutionary creative tactics and strategies to break the competitive stalemate are perhaps not worth the possible risk of losing their hard-earned stake in the shared monopoly of the superhero comics market. In this case, the intense market competition between the two publishers and the need to maintain their current dominant market share may actually be in opposition to the creative spirit that helped them achieve market ascendancy in the first place. Revolutionary thinking and technique breed success, but a comfortable level of success can breed an adherence to predictable routine and habit, for better or for worse.

Are we destined then, for a future of superhero comics tedium, as we continue to grow older, wiser, and even cynical to the reality of superhero comics publishing? Not necessarily. The seemingly terminal superhero comics market may yet prove to have room for growth. Disruptive change may come in and force publishers and comics creators to adapt to a rapidly changing set of market conditions—webcomics and crowd-funded comics could be that change, unhitched as they are from many of the commercial and logistics demands of the traditional print and digital comics publishing paradigm. Determined artists and writers who want to tell the kind of superhero stories the Big Two aren’t interested in telling are not going to stop looking for ways to get their work out to the public; they won’t always be successful and the work won’t always be good, but they’ll keep trying. There are any number of reasons for older readers to remain optimistic about the prospect for innovation in superhero comics, and when proponents of change do come out with their comics, we have to make sure that we recognize them for who and what they are, and that we support their endeavors as best as we reasonably can to the degree that their creative merits deserve.

The Latest TPB and HC reviews

Here’s a list of the Comixverse’s latest trade paperback and hardcover reviews:

I really have to give props to Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson for taking on Abhishek Singh’s Krishna: A Journey Within, a graphic novel about the eponymous Hindu avatar from an India-based comics creator with little to no name recognition in North America. It’s a beautifully illustrated title worth checking out for any fan and student of sequential art, regardless of how one might feel about the book’s religious/spiritual subject matter.

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