Episode #16: Where have all the good ideas gone?

Last updated on February 27th, 2012 at 08:26 am

One of the variant covers to L'il Depressed Boy #1

Welcome back to “the couch.” Do grab your favourite beverage, perhaps some munchies and strap in for the latest edition of this very column. You’re clearly captivated at this point, so let’s close the opening introductions and get down to business.

Last week I took a week off from writing in large part due to the lack of anything worthwhile to remark upon. Low and behold the title of this week’s column. In the weeks leading up to the last, I found sufficient ammunition in Mark Waid’s sub-par Daredevil, the Watchmen prequels and more recently the decision to continue the Smallville storyline with a line of “season 11 comics.” Oddly enough, looking at those writings now, it’s ironic that this week I’ve chosen to look at the industry as a whole.

Let’s face a simple fact. If you look up and down Diamond’s top selling books, it’s made up of numerous DC titles, some choice Marvel titles, and from there, a selection of niche books which have their cemented places in fans’ comic shop pull lists.

Let’s examine the most recent list:

Diamond Top 100 comics: January 2012

Immediately you’ll notice the top 10 are as follows (in order): Justice League, Batman, Action Comics, Detective Comics, Green Lantern, Batman: The Dark Knight, Superman, Flash, Batman and Robin and Aquaman. Following those titles are two issues of Uncanny X-Men and two Wolverine centric titles. The rest of the list is much more varied, but the top 10 paints a vivid picture of where the industry is right now and what’s selling. Not to take anything away from some of the creators involved with those titles, as some are quite talented individuals, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a lack of substance in those books. This isn’t to say Snyder’s Batman isn’t good, but the argument can be made that the success of the DC line can mostly be attributed to the company wide relaunch; the success results from a gimmick more than the quality of the books themselves. It feels cheap, such that it’s hard to put much stock in the current top 10 as a long-term trend. Yet, that would seem to be the cyclical nature of a given year, with each new, purportedly bigger idea over-shadowing the previous “next big idea;” it then dominates the listings. Last year it was Fear Itself, then came Flashpoint, then came the New 52 and next we have the Watchmen prequels. The point is, at this stage the industry is relying more on big showy ideas than solid stories, and readers by and large, using Justice League as an example, soak it up. And let’s face it, it’s not a very good book, yet it tops Diamond’s best selling comics.

DC’s new books are just examples, although this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy some of them. I love the Green Lantern books, I love Justice League Dark and Shade, and Batman is the best it’s been since the height of Morrison’s run. But I think if we look at what’s being offered we’ll find that the books that should be dominating the sales charts are dominating the sales charts, while the less popular books, some of which are critically acclaimed like Shade, don’t even crack the top 100. This is unfortunate, as Robinson’s Shade is one of the best books to come out of the “New 52,” and one of the best new series of 2011. It’s titles like it, and perhaps cancelled titles like Hawk and Dove, which fail to gain the support while the titles whose stories are arguably bordering on unimaginative continue on. Another solid example is The L’il Depressed Boy, another great series from Image Comics I’ve fallen in love with, but which doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. It would seem the good, original ideas, as should be expected I suppose fly under the radar to the point of staying there indefinitely, relegated to collecting dust on store shelves.

Most comic books offer much of the same, and in the end there’s only so much you can do with a character. There are rarer instances where you get a great addition to the Batman lore, or something similar with Green Lantern. But how many iterations of Superman’s origin can we stomach? How many times can Tony Stark fly around, shoot some bad guys, go home, and have a drink? How many times can we read comics about folks running around and shooting zombies, because realistically Walking Dead and books like it really aren’t that good or imaginative and their success hinges primarily on the zombie trend.

Perhaps this is what we face going forward in a medium which is undeniably conservative in how it tells its stories at least so far as Marvel and DC are concerned. A great example is Diggle’s Daredevil, or Remender’s Uncanny X-Force. In both cases edgier stories were told which took the principal characters to a place they hadn’t previously been, and that made them interesting. What’s lacking is the “testicular fortitude” to follow through on stories that upset the balance, that push the envelope of the medium. Perhaps that’s the limitation of mainstream work though; subsequently perhaps we can find that breeding ground for new ideas in independent works. While populism as it relates to comics will always be niche, popularity and quality of the material can’t really be confused as I think it’s rare that popularity and quality work actually meet. In that respect I think of Watchmen, Y:The Last Man, or a Kill Shakespeare are fantastic examples. Those books, in different ways, pushed the boundaries of the medium whether in respect to its concept, the writing, or the artwork.

While we all get caught up in our favourite books, perhaps we should all step back and really consider how good the books we read really are. And if we discover that maybe they aren’t, perhaps we should give some of the lesser known series a chance to surprise us. It can’t hurt to peek through the local indie books at your comic book store, as maybe you’ll discover that there is something new under the sun after all.

Andrew Ardizzi Written by:

Andrew Ardizzi is an honours graduate of journalism from Humber College, and is currently working out of Toronto as a freelance writer and editor. He's also the Senior Editor at Crystal Fractal Comics. You can find him at his blog, or follow him on Twitter.

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30 Comments

  1. February 24, 2012

    As a “shot across the bow” perhaps you should only review comics you feel have good, original ideas. Bring these comics to the forefront.

  2. February 24, 2012

    Captain America #1, March 1941. Fans rejoice. Captain America #2, April 1941. Fans complain that the stories just aren’t original anymore and that Simon and Kirby should “push the envelope”.

    This is a very old argument and one that I only partially agree with. I do think the medium should be growing, creating new ideas, and trying new things; however, I don’t think that it needs to happen within the clearly codified and established universes of Marvel and DC.

    Stock superhero genre doesn’t need to edgy and take characters to new places. It needs to be well crafted and tell excellent stories within a pretty large box.

    That isn’t to say that you can’t create superheroish works that are edgy (your examples above are great), but it doesn’t need to be Superman or Spider-Man that are taken to dark and a gritty Blade Runner land.

    Watchmen, Ex Machina, Preacher, Y The Last Man, Squadron Supreme, and many more do an excellent job of pushing elements of standard superhero storytelling to new places. And we should encourage all readers to try something new, but I don’t think that Marvel or DC need to do anything extreme with already established characters; they just need to write good stories.

    Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, X-Men, Green Lantern, and Action Comics are all arguable better than they have been in years. I totally agree with you that ho-hum event books are driving all the sales (unfortunately), but while all that foolishness is going on a number of titles are quietly seeing another golden age.

  3. Charlie
    February 24, 2012

    I find write ups like this very humorous. Consider this André:

    • You’re talking about “comics”… a mass produced commodity product. The bulk of it is going to be bad by definition. You don’t order fast food and expect a gourmet experience.

    • All publishers (and anyone dealing in print) are struggling. As long as people line up for variant covers, big cross overs and “death” issues… these gimmicks will continue because they keep the lights on.

    • The Marvel and DC universe is over 50 years old. You can do the math but that’s a lot of stories about the same characters.

    • The comic audience is too fragmented. How do struggling publishers respond to all those genres or interest groups. You don’t. Instead you go for the meat.

    • “Original” or “new” does not equal “good”. Often, “good” is about “taste” and it changes from generation to generation.

    Not to get too psycho analytical, but writes ups like this is often an expression of the writer. It’s interesting how whenever you guys take some time off, you’re back with a bit of gloom. Perhaps you broke it off with your girlfriend, or you’re just in one of those moods…

    There is a Japanese story about a great swordsman who was immortal. Over many centuries, he stood by generations of Kings, helping them conquer and rule the land. But when another swordsman asked him why he doesn’t try to become a King himself, he replied that a worm is just worm… and he is just a swordsman.

    As bad as things may seem at times, there is comfort in knowing that all is as it should be… I know, I’m sooo deep!

  4. February 25, 2012

    Actually what I’m thinking of doing is allotting Monday’s reviews to Marvel or DC, and then something else for Tuesdays whether it’s from IDW, Image, Boom, Dark Horse, or something in the local indie section that catches my eye. It may not necessarily be from that week, but it’ll be a fresh injection for the site. And if we get more reviewers, my normally present reviews on the main books would hardly be missed. Win-win.

  5. February 25, 2012

    “This is a very old argument and one that I only partially agree with. I do think the medium should be growing, creating new ideas, and trying new things; however, I don’t think that it needs to happen within the clearly codified and established universes of Marvel and DC.”

    Well it’s very obvious it can’t, as every time a story pushes the boundaries or seems like it will, it gets reined back in by a given editorial team.

    “That isn’t to say that you can’t create superheroish works that are edgy (your examples above are great), but it doesn’t need to be Superman or Spider-Man that are taken to dark and a gritty Blade Runner land.”

    Agreed, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be explored either. Granted there are characters it simply wouldn’t work with. Superman is one, while the “Back in Black” story just felt unnatural. Whereas something like “Shadowland” completely fits within Daredevil’s character, or Hal Jordan’s original “Emerald Twilight” story, where he killed all of those Green Lanterns out of despair and grief. It’s a humanizing element that’s hardly explored, yet instead we get the Yin without the Yang.

    “Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, X-Men, Green Lantern, and Action Comics are all arguable better than they have been in years. I totally agree with you that ho-hum event books are driving all the sales (unfortunately), but while all that foolishness is going on a number of titles are quietly seeing another golden age.”

    I really hope we can get more reviewers. More books reviewed means more opinions provided and possibly greater exposure for lesser known or publicized books. Since I don’t see it elsewhere, the least we can do here at CBD is our part and help create awareness those titles you speak of.

  6. Mot Yrreb
    February 25, 2012

    Please, Don’t mention Morrison and Batman in the same sentence. It makes me sick. I actually threw away RIP. It sucked and the sooner he’s gone the better. Give me Scott Snyder anytime.

  7. Mot Yrreb
    February 25, 2012

    Other than that, I agree with most of what you’ve said.

  8. February 27, 2012

    I have to agree with your agreeances, but where Morrison’s “Batman” is concerned it’s one of the most solid arcs of the Batman mythology. Granted, everything goes downhill from there as we get into “Final Crisis,” “The Return of Bruce Wayne” and then “Batman Inc.” But his arc, from the beginning to the “Batman R.I.P.” story itself, was solid.

  9. February 27, 2012

    While your points are true, that doesn’t mean the quality needs to suffer at all. Just because something is a superhero comic doesn’t mean it has to be formulaic, as Johns has shown on “Green Lantern” and as Snyder is showing right now on “Batman.” Certainly gimmicks are a large part of this business as well, but how can we speak of comics positively when we get something like a “Final Crisis?”

    As for your “original” comment, by your definition then all the comics Anthony listed aren’t very good. Finally, your comment about “taking time off” reminds me of a Mark Waid quote from 1999 which I stumbled onto yesterday:

    “You don’t like someone’s work? Fine; that’s what makes horse races. Not everything is written FOR you. Don’t read it if you don’t like it; stop posting–or, better yet, sending–hate mail. I’m not kidding; I’ve had actual death threats posted and e-mailed to me. Guess it’s easy and convenient to do that when you don’t have to buy a stamp.”

    If we take that attitude, keep our mouths shut (or you know, keyboards not clicking), we’re silencing a dissenting point of view, which I’m sorry to say is lacking online. So if there’s something eating at you regarding the industry, why not comment on it? I mean, that’s how we get ludicrous five-star reviews on certain sites for books which probably don’t deserve it. If all we do is PR and everything is fundamentally awesome, what’s the point in commenting really?

    Accepting your swordsman point is rather defeatist, in accepting “your place” in a community or the status quo, you accept the conditions are immutable; it’s a point I feel to be incorrect. Because everything is as it should be doesn’t mean it’s as it could be.

  10. February 27, 2012

    If you only have a finite time to write, should you focus on a negative review or a positive review? Do we tear down or build up?

  11. February 27, 2012

    Both are necessary. For example, as has been documented on this site, I dislike Mark Waid’s “Daredevil.” So I should hold my tongue if I disagree with a book’s direction? Both positive and negative reviews have their place and deserve equal weight and presentation. If a book is good, I’ll say so. If it’s bad, likewise.

  12. February 27, 2012

    You wrote about disliking Waid’s Daredevil, meaning you chose to talk about what’s wrong with something and thereby missed the opportunity to promote something you liked. Would you rather encourage people to try something you like or discourage people from trying something you don’t like.

  13. February 27, 2012

    Scott: Both are valid, but why should reviews always be positive? Not all movie reviews are positive, nor are book reviews, music reviews, and so forth. Where’s the critique? Why should comics be any different? There’s validity in providing your thoughts in either respect, and in most cases I read a book coldly and if I like it, I say so. I alternately say so if I don’t.

  14. February 27, 2012

    I like honest reviews!

    I don’t see why you should just pick books you like. You enjoy reading and then put your time in to give us some quality reviews. Kudos!

    I look at reviewers as the watchdogs of quality. Publish crap at your own risk creators and beware the rabid reviewers!

  15. February 27, 2012

    All I’m saying is if you read two comics, liked one and hated the other, do you review the book you liked or the one you hated. Yes it would be great to review both but for most of us there’s only so much time available.

  16. February 27, 2012

    That’s interesting coming from you Walt; I don’t think you’ve written anything negative on CBD. Can we look forward to overvalued spotlight and auction lowlights?

  17. February 27, 2012

    I actually think that bad reviews are in some way harder to come by. We generally buy stuff that we are already interested in and therefore probably already sort of like. If something that we bought has gotten to the point that we are dropping the book and give it a bad review that is actually saying a lot.

    I do think that we have to be much more careful when we post a negative review. If we say something is bad we must really back it up with example, precedence, etc. or else we seem like the ever-growing group of trolls.

    Encouraging people to pick up good stuff is just as important as warning them to stay away from the bad.

  18. February 27, 2012

    I should but choose not to. Doesn’t stop me from seeing value in someone esle’s negative review.

    Perhaps I’ll wade in with a “this one is just about right spotlight” or should I call it the “Goldilocks Zone Spotlight”.

  19. Charlie
    February 28, 2012

    André, I think you miss my point. “Quality” hasn’t suffered because it was never there to being with. It’s only you’re perception of “quality” that has suffered due to you’re emotional situation.

    Just ask Walter… when you are in love, food tastes better and the days seem sunny even when it’s raining. Conversely, when you break it off… there’s no magic pill that can mend a broken heart. You just have to stay strong and get through it.

    My point is… you can’t change the nature of water, nor can you change the nature of an ephemeral commercial product that’s cranked out monthly. Comic books are meant to be a disposable product. It’s this honest nature that makes the older books so appealing. Newer books are less “honest”. They are disguised as graphic “novels” and try to be more then what they are. But as long as Marvel and DC use the same mold, it’s silly to expect anything other then something that is “formulaic”.

    But let’s get to the real purpose of your reply. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to telling me off. Who are we kidding… you ARE telling me off! I could retaliate but I wont because you seem out of sorts and I can take as well as I can dish.

    Surely you understand our different positions. I’m just a knuckle head with an opinion. I’ve got nothing invested in my comments other than sharing an interest. However, if you’re itching to be a serious writer, with your Humber honours degree, you might want to practice your craft in your replies.

    I don’t have any issue with “positive” or “negative” reviews. But if you’re gonna publicly review… try establishing a truth with some objectivity first. This will demonstrates your openness as well as your keen understanding of the topic. This way, your opinion will have much more depth and appear to be perceptive… as opposed to… “I’m bored… why does everything suck?”

    Also, be prepared to be challenged. And when you are, you’ll accomplish more by facilitating dialogue instead of opposition for the sake of contradicting a comment.

    My point about the swordsman: Something that may seem wrong today may be right tomorrow. (I got this one from Wong’s fortune cookie ^_^ )

  20. February 28, 2012

    “Quality” hasn’t suffered because it was never there to being with.

    Charlie, I am fascinated by your contempt and disregard for a medium which you seem to enjoy. You seem to view comic books as a lesser art form, but collect and purchase them on a regular basis. Quite a paradox.

  21. Charlie
    February 28, 2012

    Now you have a sense of what my family goes through ^_^

    The thing is, I don’t have an agenda. I’m not here to promote myself or to prove anything… so I’m more freed up than you guys. And I think one of the primarily purpose of dialogue and communication is to arrive at a “truth”.

    I’m not saying comics have no merit… in fact they do. But considering their news stand origins and their monthly schedule… How quickly does the story need to be written so that it can be edited, drawn, inked, lettered, printed and delivered. Man… that’s a lot of work in a short period of time. On top of which, the Marvel and DC universe is over 50 years old. Yes… expect a good comic but also understand their limitations.

    No one trusts the government or corporate bodies… because, despite what they say… we know it’s often spin. If you really wanna promote comics, I think authenticity will go much further.

    Comics are fun because you can do things in this medium that you can’t do any where else. To me, this should be the central selling point. This is a territory that comics can own… Doesn’t that sound better than claiming that comics are “important to the literacy of our youth”?

  22. February 29, 2012

    And that’s a fair point, but I suppose what it comes down is the emotion attached to a given book after you’ve read. I typically go with what I feel strongest about, because the review write themselves. It doesn’t matter if I liked a book or I disliked it, I write about it regardless dependent on my thoughts.

  23. February 29, 2012

    I disagree on your point about the quality of past stories. To accept that as fact is to consider stories such as “Born Again,” “Watchmen,” or any other classic story as of lesser quality than you appear ready to afford it. There have been great stories over the decades, and there are still really good stories out there being told today. An example that caught me by surprise over the last year was “The L’il Depressed Boy.” So to dismiss everything as moderately readable “popcorn,” I feel is incorrect.

  24. February 29, 2012

    Hmmm…the above comment was directed at Scott. I agree with Anthony though that it’s as important to be as vocal about good works as it is to be vocal lesser ones.

  25. February 29, 2012

    I’m on the fence regarding your point on youth literacy. Obviously there is an infinitude amount of literature youth can be exposed to for the purposes of encouraging literacy, and comic books can hardly be the sole vehicle for that end. At the same time, it can function as a vehicle that contributes to that end.

    As an example, late last year I helped publish a one-shot comic for Fort William First Nation located around Thunder Bay based on their “Sleeping Giant” legend. We did so with a number of objectives, the most important being to aid in the preservation of the band’s culture, but to also encourage literacy among the band’s youth. So it worked two-fold in chronicling a piece of history, while also encouraging a younger generation to read. And comics have that power as a medium, and it’s not limited to my example. There are comics that comment on world affairs, there are comics that elaborate on deeply personal stories which any one of six billion people can be touched by, just as there are inspiring superhero comics whose models we can aspire to. It’s great to read those stories in a medium that’s unbelievably accessible. All you need is the right story, and in the case of comics it works both as a written and visual form of communication.

  26. Charlie
    February 29, 2012

    To say that the bulk of what’s out there is crap is different than saying that it’s all crap. Born Again and Watchmen are 2 out of many that still give me chills whenever I re-read them.

    I recognize that there are good stories still being produced. However, I’m dismissing all the rest… which, again is the vast majority.

  27. Charlie
    February 29, 2012

    Are you guys familiar with Italian designer Ettore Sottsass from the late ’70s, early ’80s. Back then high end materials were used to make high end stuff. Whenever cheap material was used, it was changed or disguised as to look like high end material… such as fake wood moldings.

    Ettorre Sottsass made a funny looking bookcase using plastic laminate. This bookshelf is “key” in the world of industrial design because it was “honest”. Ettorre Sottsass basically said, let plastic BE plastic. Why must it be something else…?

    http://blog.mam.org/2010/12/12/from-the-collection-ettore-sottsass-carlton-bookcase/

  28. Charlie
    February 29, 2012

    I’m sure you guys know of Philippe Starck… he designed these toothbrushes:

    http://frogandprincess.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/1988toothbrush.jpeg

    A lot of effort went into rethinking what a toothbrush is and turning a common product into an object of desire. But you know what… it’s still a tooth brush. As beautiful as it is, like comics, it’s a disposable product.

    Likewise, I enjoy comics for what they are… but after re-reading the comments from the past few days, it occurs to me that some people are having trouble ACCEPTING comics… and yet I’m the paradox.

    After a stressful day, sometimes I like to kick back with a can of pop, a large bag of chips and watch Transformers. I know I’m eating crap and watching crap but it helps take the edge off a tough day… Basically I’m looking to zone out. Salt, fat and robots with guns have their place. I don’t zone out every day but it’s a nice break when I can get it.

    We already have movies, novels, educational material and high art. Comics have there place as well so I’m happy to celebrate what they are and not convince myself that they are something else.

    Ed… Mr. T was not quite what I had in mind but I’m with you in spirit ^_^

  29. March 1, 2012

    Comics are a medium: words and pictures to tell a story. A framework from which to create, like any other medium.

    A bookcase serves its purpose if it holds books. If I use cinder blocks and milk crates or plastic laminate or carved teak and ivory I’ve accomplished the basic task of holding books. Of these some are crap and some are beautiful works of art, but they’re all bookcases. Using your logic I’d say all bookcases as crap, fulfilling their primary purpose but having no other values than holding books.

    We’re all saying the same thing to you Charlie: you can’t lump everything together. And I realize you come here to argue and no one is every going to sway you from your position.

Make It Good.