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:
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.