These days, if a series from one of the Big Two makes it to 20 issues without being rebooted or relaunched it’s a miracle. With constant events and creative team changes, is it any wonder books don’t last?
Last week, writer Peter David announced that All-New X-Factor would be canceled with issue #20. Through multiple incarnations of the series, David has written X-Factor for around 200 issues. That’s a long run on a title, especially when you consider that these days, most creators probably last a year or less on a Big Two ongoing before they either move on of their own accord or they’re shuttled off by the higher-ups.
That’s a big problem, in my mind, and it’s a big reason, I think, for why the Big Two have trouble maintaining, never mind growing, their readership.
When I first got into comics, I jumped into a couple of series that had already been around for decades. The characters had history, depth, longevity. I jumped into The Avengers with issue #278, just prior to the Masters of Evil taking over the mansion, I got into Uncanny X-Men just in time to catch the start of the whole Mutant Massacre quasi-event. I can think of very few ongoing titles where I was able to get in on the ground floor, although interestingly enough, X-Factor was one such series.
Was the prospect of having to learn the comic’s accumulated internal history daunting? Sometimes. But the writers and editors did what they could to make it easier for new readers like me to get our bearings.
And the creative teams back in the day would stick around for years, not single digit runs. Even in today’s social media world where readers can directly interact with comics creators online, there’s no substitute for the kind of creator-reader relationship that is built on familiarity with the work.
With ongoing titles being written in a way so as to make them easier to repackage as bound, standalone collections, it almost seems like the Big Two’s comics have a built-in reset button that gets pushed every six months or so. Characters only grow and change to the extent that it makes sense within the current story arc, and then it’s back to square one or on to the next tentpole crossover event. I believe this prevents readers from forming attachments to ongoing titles like they used to. Writers like Jonathan Hickman on the Fantastic Four and Avengers and Rick Remender on Captain America have succeeded in maintaining some sense of sustained character development within the format, but they look to me to be the exceptions, and even then, you just know that once they’re assigned to a new book or their deal with Marvel is up, whatever contributions they’ve made to the characters’ history and development will be rolled back as soon as the new writer gets settled in.
It doesn’t help that the long game is being discarded in favor of short-term status quo shifts meant to capitalize on social media buzz. Does anyone truly believe that the Sam Wilson will remain as Captain America or that the new female Thor will hold onto the hammer for any significant amount of time? The changes will likely last only for so long as it has people talking, and then we’ll all go back to pretending that none of this happened—chances are that Marvel will discard these developments as soon as the novelty starts wearing off and move on to The Next Big Hype Job instead of developing these ideas further.
This quick turnaround is only worsened by the non-stop events that both Marvel and DC engage in. How can someone become invested in Sam Wilson-as-Cap when his story is interrupted by the AXIS event? All these things do is add to the background noise in ongoing titles that need a sense of clarity and direction. We had Infinity followed by Original Sin and now we’ve got AXIS. Were any of them actually any good? Did they actually make the shared Marvel Universe feel more coherent, and did they add anything to the mythology?
And this growing trend of weekly and bi-weekly shipping schedules for certain titles just isn’t helping. You’d think it would, but I think it has the opposite effect. For a time, All-New X-Factor shipped two issues a month every other month—that’s how it’s getting to issue #20 ahead of the other titles it launched with earlier this year—but that puts quite the strain on a reader’s budget. And with the price of comics nowadays ($3.99 for a standard 20-page issue for most of Marvel’s offerings), every reader is working with a limited budget. If you know a book is going to have 18 issues a year compared to 12, you take that into account when planning the year’s comics purchases. Maybe one of the other titles on your pull list gets dropped. Maybe dips in quality will be less tolerated for that 18-issues-a-year title.
All this, along with the publisher’s tendency to cancel titles as soon as monthly sales dip below a certain number, adds up to readers being less invested in the Big Two’s ongoing titles, and that ends up hurting the industry in the long run, even if crossovers and events do generate temporary sales spikes.
The original Alpha Flight title lasted for 130 issues. The original New Warriors series made it all the way to issue #75. Even taking into account how much the market has changed since those titles were around, are you telling me that neither concept, proven as they are, can’t sustain a series for more than eight or a dozen issues now? Neither the original Alpha Flight nor the original New Warriors comics were hits out of the gate. They took time to develop and for word of mouth to get around, and we got some pretty good comics in the meantime.
When DC kickstarted its line-wide “New 52” reboot in 2011 with the simultaneous launch of 52 titles, the publisher forgot that it took decades to grow an audience to the point that such a stunt would even be conceivable. After the initial excitement died down, what followed was what seemed like month after month of cancellation announcements. Hype gets you casual fans and speculators, but it doesn’t necessarily earn reader loyalty.
The mainstream comics industry will never get back to the commercial peak it reached in the early 1990s, before it all came crashing down. But that doesn’t mean it has to settle for the constantly rotating mess of relaunches, hype, and creative team juggling that we have now. Marvel and DC need to stop spinning in place, be patient, and take the time to shepherd along books. Give legacy ongoing titles with established creative teams a longer leash when it comes to cancellation. Allow new ongoing titles a real opportunity to develop a viable readership before pulling the plug. Turn them into webcomics if you have to absolutely cut down on printing costs. Sure, this kind of investment comes at a real price and it could be years before any of it pays off, but that’s how you get to have the kind of fans that will keep coming back month-after-month even when the hype has faded, the fans that buy the comic, ask their library to stock up on the trade paperbacks, and watch the movie and TV series adaptations.