The Medium Is The Message, Maybe: Graeme’s Random Thoughts On Formats, Creators And The Like

February 26, 2016

I’m not sure quite why I’ve been thinking so much about the comic book/TV theory lately. It’s got something to do with both the DC Rebirth announcement and Eric Stephenson’s keynote from ComicsPro, I know that, but it goes beyond just that — I feel like there’s been some weird “comics are just like TV shows because they’re both serialized pop cultural narratives” meme present for awhile, what with the trend to refer to comics series as “seasons” that started with… what, Dark Horse’s Buffy? Surely not.

Nonetheless, it’s a cross-media model that mainstream comics — by which I mean superhero comics, for the most part, although Image’s superhero-in-language-at-least output falls into this too, I think — alludes to a lot. The whole “season” thing has always been troublesome to me; Marvel’s Axel Alonso talked about All-New All-Different Marvel concreting a move to a “seasonal model” for the publisher, but to describe it as that seems to misunderstand what TV seasons actually are.

For one thing, they’re generally fixed-length in terms of episodes — 13 or 22 for network shows — and also in terms of timing: they’re an annual cycle. In comics, that’s rarely the case; relaunches come along whenever numbers fall too hard, or it’s time for the next big linewide promotional cycle or creative team change — TV series generally carry creatives between seasons, which is another difference between them.

But that last element stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that comics put more emphasis on the creators than TV shows. Sure, audiences know the actors and may recognize some showrunners (the ones on the more nerd-friendly properties like Community or Battlestar Galactica, say), but in general, what percentage of the Castle audience can name the writer or director of any given episode? How many fans of The Flash, even, could tell one writer from another?

That was in my head when I read Eric Stephenson’s ComicsPro keynote address last week, which was exactly what you want from a Stephenson address — well-meaning, passionate and occasionally out-of-sync with what Image does as a publisher (Bemoaning putting out too many books and variant covers? Come now). At one point, though he talked about pushing out multiple issues of a comic book in a month.

“And if you are a publisher trying to shore up your numbers by releasing more than one issue of a single title a month: Stop,” he said. “It’s makes it next to impossible for retailers to accurately track sales, it puts undue pressure on even your most loyal fans, and it deprives writers and artists of the ability to do their best work. In fact, it all but robs artists of the ability to establish the kind of multi-issue runs that define long and illustrious careers.”

I read that, and I thought, fuck yeah. And then I thought, well, maybe.

The reason for the well, maybe is that I have a fondness for 2000AD‘s Judge Dredd, which rotates creators in and out with great frequency. I had a fondness for Marvel’s Brand New Day era of Amazing Spider-Man, which did the same thing. I even have a fondness for the 1970s/1980s Superman and Action Comics runs, which kind of did the same thing as Brand New Day, drawing on a pool of creatives but without one primary creator in charge, instead relying on the editor to keep it all together. And it struck me, that’s the network TV model in action right there.

It’s not that the resulting work lacks a voice — anyone arguing that there isn’t a specific Dredd “feel,” or that there wasn’t a consistent voice to BND-era Amazing Spider-Man would need to re-read those series, I’d argue — but that the focus of the work, the star of the comic, is the fictional star of the comic. That’s increasingly unusual in “mainstream comics,” for whatever reason; more and more, the stars are the creators.

I’m surprisingly ambivalent about that, for reasons I can’t put my finger on. I don’t begrudge credit, literally, being given where it’s due. The creators are the draw, the reason people are picking up the comics? That’s great! That’s as it should be, and as someone who loves Jack Kirby comics and Walt Simonson comics and Eddie Campbell comics and John Allison comics, I’m completely onboard.

And yet, honestly, there’s part of me that feels like there’s not really any problem with Superman comics being more about Superman than, say, Greg Pak or Gene Yang or John Romita Jr. (And I say that as someone who’s loved Action Comics and Superman lately.) A Batman series that’s consistently good, even if writers and artists swap out? I have absolutely no problem with that; the character can provide the consistency, as long as the quality is up there, surely…?

And yet, that’s not where comics culture is right now, and it’s what makes me think that the comics-as-TV shift is about more than just ensuring that people don’t complain about relaunches on a regular basis, but instead come to expect them. Right now, comics feel more like movies, in a strange way, invested in creators the way that movies support the auteur theory to some degree. But when we think about comics as television, then we change the focus towards the characters and the frequency and the idea that “showrunners” and rotating creative teams are the way ahead.

The more this stuff runs around in my head, the more I think that there isn’t actually a way forward. Instead, what “mainstream comics” needs to do is accept that there are different approaches and different attitudes and what works for something won’t work for everything. Maybe what we need is more variety behind the scenes as well as on the shelves. (And probably to stop comparing the industry to every other entertainment industry out there, as well. But that’ll never happen.)

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6 comments on “The Medium Is The Message, Maybe: Graeme’s Random Thoughts On Formats, Creators And The Like

  1. While I do think comics culture’s generally creator focused outlook is a good thing it rings hollow when people talk about a green lantern C title.

    I think it would healthier for the big two to move more towards the tv model of rotating writers than say for DC to pretend it has 52 unique autur driven projects that have continuities that are perfectly in sync.

  2. Also, with a TV series you know you’re on, say, episode 8 of 13. It gives you a sense of your place in the overriding story, of whether the momentum is gathering at a pace that makes the story work for you. With a comic you might have 1 or 12 more episodes in the series to go: who knows? it’s arbitrary and likely to change at a moment’s notice based on sales.

  3. I think I’ve said before in the Wait, What? comments, personally I’ve always thought the tv/movie/novel comparisons with comics are faulty, and the better comparison is pop(ular) music (I’m using this in the British definition of the word, where pop can encompass anything from rap to rock).

    The single issue is the equivalent of the old 45, and is essentially there to provoke an adolescent emotional reaction in an often clichéd genre. In music, it’s usually love songs, in comics, action adventure stories. Much time is spent concentrating on one aspect of the production, often the lyrics when it comes to music, writing for comics, but there is also a fascination with the artistry of the performers/creators. Sometimes a vocal performance or guitar riff will be greeted with acclaim, and likewise in comics the artist will be lauded for his technique. We can obsess over pages of Steranko art in the same way as we can the production techniques of “God Only Knows What I’d be Without You” by the Beach Boys, or Kirby’s Fantastic Four photo collage spreads and a five minute Led Zeppelin guitar solo.

    There is also the cult of the creator that is similar in both: it is possible to compare both Moore and Morrison with Bowie, for instance: decade spanning careers with collaborators and projects that keep them fresh, and both simultaneously following trends and creating new ones. And occasionally ending up with Tin Machine.

    And, of course, bitter fall outs and rivalries. I recently read an interview with the aforementioned Beach Boy’s Mike Love that read in no little way like an interview with Stan Lee when it came to who contributed what to the creative process.

    In a recent Twitter exchange with the esteemed Colin Smith of the Too Busy Thinking About My Comics blog, he wondered whether comics are the only area that people obsess about companies more than their products, and my reply was is that any different than following Motown? Are Marvel and DC the equivalent of record producers and companies that claim responsibility for the success of their recording artists? As music fans get upset at a member of a group leaving but the rest carrying on, is that the same as such and such an artist leaving a title, but the fan continuing to buy it?

    And, of course, there are the different genres and “alternative” sections. And the collections, which are like albums (and the rise of digital distribution that takes us back to the single).

    Finally, there is the fan aspect of creations: both comics and music are predominatly self taught, often by copying what came before and then turning it into something new.

    I think comparing comics to tv or movies is actually restrictive for these reasons, and as you say in your essay, eventually leads to a dead end.

    (And finally, off topic completely, the representation of the music and comics industries in other mediums is frequently diabolical, but part of me would love to see HBO produce a thinly veiled 60’s Marvel Bullpen series in the style of Vinyl!)

  4. daustin Feb 29, 2016

    I think I came to a similar view as the industry’s regarding creator’s years ago. The combination of the 90s schlock-fest, overexposure of popular characters, constantly changing creative teams and the Stan Lee “illusion of change” brought me to the view that following Marvel/DC/corporate comics characters through thick and thin was pointless, and that creator owned and controlled books were the only way to go. That’s all I read for some years afterwards before returning somewhat to mainstream superhero work. However, with a big difference – now I only sign on to a Marvel/DC series for the creators (or because of good critical reaction). And the minute that team finishes its story, I’m gone unless there is a reason to stick around. I love King and Janin on Grayson, but the moment they finish that story, I’m gone – can’t imagine hanging around for Nightwing. Similarly, will check out King’s Vision, but when he’s off, I expect I will stop reading. Tried one issue post-Ellis and Shalvey on Moon Knight – done. Same with leaving the moment the Finches hit WW after Azzarello and Chiang (though that’s one I should probably have left even earlier). I don’t inherently care about Grayson, Moon Knight or Wonder Woman at all, but I’d rather read a short, good book about them than a schizophrenic bloviation about old favorites like the LOSH, New Mutants or Kitty Pryde.

    Similarly, I avoid crossovers/”books that matter” like the plague. All I want are self-contained, continuity-lite stories (though Gillen’s JiM oddly worked despite that). I love me a good, long, in-universe run like the old Claremont X-Men or Simonson Thor, but those days are dead. I got burned too many times by sticking with a character/title long after it fell to crap in the 90s – X-Men, Captain America, LOSH – and I have no faith in Marvel/DC to maintain a consistency of vision and quality anymore other than in the very short term.

  5. >what with the trend to refer to comics series as “seasons” that started with… what, Dark Horse’s Buffy?

    Ed Brubaker’s Sleeper.

    • Jensen Feb 29, 2016

      I can’t remember when Sleeper came out, but I was thinking either The Authority or The Ultimates. With Authority you had the current-comics understanding of “season”, when Ellis and Hitch left and Millar and Quitely came in. But with Ultimates you had Ultimates and Ultimates 2, with the creators staying on for the second season, as in a TV show.

      Well, with Waid’s Daredevil and DeConnick’s Cap Marvel, I guess sometimes creators do stay on for the next volume. But in those cases I don’t think people really saw them as “seasons”. They were just arbitrary reboots to help sagging sales, or to get a new #1 because every other title was doing it.

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