When Up Is Down: There’s Nothing Mainstream About Mainstream Comics
Mainstream and indie are two counterparts of the comics industry; two gears that spin interdependently, shaping the medium. You’ll meet these two terms at any comics-themed website or discussion, both online and in real life. People use them when talking about comics history, or describing the current state of the medium, or specifying their own affections.
The two are inevitably put into contraposition to each other. We humans love to play the yin and yang game, and it seems natural to compare something small and authentic with something big and well-recognized. David and Goliath thing, if you prefer western metaphors. Of course, it’s not only comics: we have mainstream/indie music, movies, clothes, even skincare trademarks. Everyone faces the dilemma of whether to take the risk of trying a new local coffee shop or go with Starbucks. Thus, mainstream/indie discourse is familiar, and we eagerly apply it to comics.
Only now, in 2015, mainstream comics do not exist.
We automatically use this word for Marvel and DC, and it seems just fine at the first glance: their titles are sold in every comics store, and there’s hardly a person on Earth who has never heard about Batman or Spider-Man. The Big Two are resourceful corporations with millions of readers, vast sales, and wide distribution, that’s right. But all of this satisfies only part of the definition of mainstream. There’s one more essential attribute to make something mainstream, one that’s missing: openness and accessibility for newcomers.
Paradoxically, almost everything that helps the Big Two uphold the status quo simultaneously keeps them from being more open. For example, connected fictional universes, Marvel’s and DC’s signature trait.
Shared universes seem to be effective in raising companies’ sales. If you don’t miss a single issue of Captain America, you soon will be pulled into a whirlpool of events and crossovers, which urge you to buy other titles. “All it takes is a little push,” and a fan of any superhero could be converted to a fan of the whole universe when they pick up a tie-in. But a person who is new to comics won’t become a fan as easily, because a vast fictional world, consisting of tangled events, is hard to comprehend.
A universe is a key corporate asset, and its inhabitants, the superheroes, are assets, too. Procter & Gamble has Oral B, Kraft Foods has Jell-O, Marvel has Spider-man, DC has the Flash. Brands, that’s what our favorite characters are, each of them with own targeted audience and brand identity. I bet you can easily imagine certain color schemes when you’re thinking about Wonder Woman, Wolverine or Hawkeye. Superman, Bats and some others even have established logotypes.
Every brand plays with humans’ fear of change. We stick to things we know. The familiar tricolored “S” logo feels reassuring: hey, here’s a story about someone you know very well, why go with an unknown guy? It’s comforting to know that the familiar character will be responsible for your entertainment, the same way Gothamites feel safer knowing that Batman is on duty over there tonight.
Consequently, superhero brands are probably the leading selling factor for the Big Two, and a handy marketing tool. More recognizable characters could team-up with less-known superheroes to boost sales (in marketing they call it co-branding—in comics we call this a crossover).
As a result, Marvel and DC care about their brands, and maybe not as much about talents they hire to develop them. Artists and writers change constantly. Creators, except for a very select few, have a short-term influence on characters, stories, and visuals, and this causes a lot of awkwardness from time to time. Sometimes there are even shifts in writing and art amidst a run, which I hate because reading a comic with changing artists is like watching a TV show with weekly recasting.
It’s usually easier to cope with changing writers, although not all creators really capably fit into someone else’s style. Paired with major events that spread over several titles, the kaleidoscope of writing and artistic styles sometimes becomes utter idiocy. My personal number one in this category is DC’s No Man’s Land. Batman Chronicles #16 feeds readers with a sweet cartoon-style tale of soft-hearted Two-Face, who makes friends with Renee Montoya. In Shadow of the Bat #87, which in TPB format runs just twenty pages later, Two-Face frames Penguin and grabs a good deal of land in post-earthquake Gotham. The art in the latter issue is pretty much DC’s house style, compared to the earlier, more cartoonish art. This juxtaposition in writing and artistic style perfectly explains how the willy-nilly employment of creators during a run can ruin stories.
At the same time, one artist could hardly produce more than couple of issues per month, which means engaging a lot of artists helps Marvel and DC to keep up with tough publishing schedules so the readers get plenty of new stuff to read each month. Thus, to provide the well-established fan base with a lot of reading material in time, the companies have to reconcile the inconsistent styles, even though this confuses and frightens off new readers.
More inconsistency is then caused by the environment, which has been hostile for creators since rotating teams became an industry standard. Remember the Batgirl cover that “was not seen or approved by anyone on Team Batgirl?” Or Greg Rucka being surprised with the news that the character he’s working on “is going to join a team on another book?” Rucka also confirms that publishers value brands over talents: “[T]heir interest in the talent is minimal now, the interest is only in promoting the financial worth of their properties.” Or how DC, “after a year or more of planning and plotting,” asked the creators “to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines” of Batwoman. Or look at how John Rozum explained why he quit Static Shock: “There was more concern about seeing that the title sold and didn’t get cancelled than there was in telling good stories and having something coherent to bring readers in.”
All this happens because, in order to manage the enormous bulk of characters and plots, the Big Two have editorial boards. These are supposed to ensure seamless universe development and cohesion of stories. While creative on the surface, the whole thing actually works as a merciless corporate decision-making machine, targeted to increase profit only.
I’m not saying editors are monsters. The real culprit is the corporate madness that occurs when you take a number of people committed to make a real thing (editors, writers, artists) and tie their hands with guidelines, and marketing strategies, and concerns about sales. Make creative people responsible for readers’ reaction to their work, and you’ll build a perfect environment for superstitions and paranoid fear of failure, and all the good ideas are likely to be discarded as too liberal, or too modest, or too plain, or too bold. So when your favorite character acts utterly stupid and looks ill-motivated, don’t rush to blame the creator or the editor; it is probably the collective decision-making machine.
The profit-motivated world order results in tons of rubbish coming off the printing machine. And here’s where the real power of superheroes shows itself: even bad stories don’t prevent admirers from buying issues one after another. A brand is a cushion on which a customer’s trust falls and doesn’t shatter, at least for the first few times. Sadly, it doesn’t work for those whose loyalty to brands isn’t established; namely, new readers.
Novices don’t have this brand inertia and special bonding with Harley Quinn or Iron Man, so they won’t follow a comic just because of a familiar name. They need good stories. And if the story disappoints, there’s no point in continuing. The point is that Marvel and DC, for the most part, are too busy providing their fans with a monthly chunk of stories they love, which causes more oddities, some of them too inexplicable for newbies.
One more problem is characters. A fifty-year-old “branded” superhero imposes creators with the incredible task to invent fresh and engaging stories about the same person again and again. Which, of course, is impossible. Changes in a character’s personality are inevitable. Frank Miller’s Batman and Jeph Loeb’s Batman are completely different people; they wear the same mask and share some biographical facts, but that’s it. Bruce Wayne/Batman is not really a character. He’s a summary of brief biographical facts, contradictory canon, and corporate guidelines. His personal traits, beliefs, dos and don’ts, and speech patterns change depending on who writes him. His portrait is smeared by too many versions of himself. If we were judging him as a literary character, he would be extremely loose and underdeveloped.
Obviously, for a long running comic title, a steady personality limits the variety of conflicts a character could face. That’s why companies constantly change a person under this mask, sometimes radically like putting Thor’s hammer in Jane Foster’s hands and passing Cap’s shield to Falcon. The distinctive universe puts even more limitations on the plot, and here’s the result: mainstream titles can’t be without reboots and retcons.
With dozens of predecessors behind their backs, writers of corporate comics need to be really inventive, so they sacrifice the holy of holies of fiction: consistency, turning the logic of a fictional universe into quicksand. In literature, such things never pass unheeded.
Sometimes these are just subtle details, not anything you could point to, but we feel the offbeat voice and style of plotting in Sherlock Holmes stories written by Conan Doyle’s ascenders. Readers are rarely biased in the favor of the latter. It is widely accepted that Gone With the Wind outbeats its sequel, written by a fan. Committed readers can easily tell you exactly at which line of St. Ives Robert Louis Stevenson was replaced by Arthur Quiller-Couch (and they rarely talk about this with pleasure!). Consistency is one of the main values in literature; no wonder a constant sacrifice of it makes comics so impenetrable for tyros.
But know what surprises me even more? Lifelong comics fans love it. Sure, they whine about DC’s continuity fever, but at the same time a lot of people enjoy intrauniversal crossovers and eagerly discuss differences between Miller’s and Loeb’s Batman. As if it’s normal. As if it’s fun.
This is, in my opinion, the most incredible achievement of the Big Two: they make fun out of things that are considered almost illegal in other storytelling media. Marvel and DC are inveterate anarchists: creating the rules of continuity, breaking those rules regularly, and persuading fans that it’s fine for a character to change. It became cool to follow these changes, to dig into the history, to learn canons by heart and be ready to reveal for strangers on the web and writers of the latest run where they are wrong. A complicated, time-consuming hobby, but participating made you a part of the “in” crowd.
Companies pay back loyal readers with crossovers and continuity changes, which break logic to pieces but bring to life the bold dreams of dedicated fans. Dreaming of Hulk and Godzilla clashing? Wanna see My Little Ponies confronting Yoda? Miss Piggie vs. Miss Marvel? All of this could become true. Whichever of Spidey’s girls you like, in some of the universes the love story will finally look like you expect it. It’s a childish dream of having it all, without thoughts about the sense of proportion and good taste.
Crossovers, mash-ups, and alternate universes gratify our inner little geek, who doesn’t know that mixing all your favorite foods in one bowl won’t give you the divine meal. Moreover, crossovers legitimize the weirdness of corporate universes. If they mashed-up Winnie the Pooh with Doomsday for me, why should I whine about a 134th reboot of the universe?
Therefore, fans agree with the features of the game: rotating teams and strange stories, endless references to other titles and back issues, controversial canons, reboots, and retcons. The industry breeds its readers, cultivates their expectations, and then meets them. You won’t realize how strange these rules are until you try to explain to some uninitiated friend why Superman would fight Batman.
No wonder that a fan, who is talented and lucky enough to land a gig for Marvel or DC, immediately starts to rely on these standards and looks forward to bringing forward their new vision of old characters. There’s hardly any incentive to save what the writer before you added to the myth. There’s only the goal to give people something fresh and entertain them.
Wait, where have we seen this? When somebody takes an established universe and well-known character and writes a story to entertain a bunch of fans?
Fanfiction. That’s the proper name for it.
For the last thirty years or so, Marvel and DC have sold fanfiction. Fans write for fans.
And fanfiction isn’t mainstream. It’s a subculture, cozy for the initiated and hostile for the outsiders. This is perfectly true for the Big Two. They know how to keep fans hooked for decades, but they fail to attract fresh blood to their army of readers. With a complex history, money-sucking events and continuity confusions, Marvel and DC have no place for new readers. They try to fix it, of course, and have done so with some effect in the last year or so. But in general, newbies can’t start with any issue right away. If you need to Google reading order, then it’s not a friendly storyline.
There’s a threshold that won’t allow outsiders to enjoy “mainstream” comics as easily as they can enjoy a mainstream movie or an album of a mainstream band. Compare it to indie comics: even if a story has 50 issues, it’s still not close to the 400-issue legacy of Thor. A paradox: comics that we call mainstream have more in common with small subcultures than comics we call indie.
It’s a mystery to me why Marvel and DC keep this audience barrier willingly. Obviously, they could fling the doors open. Remember Marvel of the 2000s, at the edge of bankruptcy, striving to attract new readers? They clearly knew what they needed to do: “We shortened our story arcs, the number of issues it takes to complete a story, to four or six issues. In the past the arcs could be endless, making it difficult for a new reader to jump in.” And it worked!
Now, even in the cinematic universe, Marvel plays complex continuity games, as if they just can’t do things and not overcomplicate them. The new Avengers movie illustrates this perfectly. It’s strange, considering that movies and TV shows seem like the only working way of attracting new readers to superhero titles these days. It seems to me that Hollywood is running out of original ideas and is instead flooding movie theaters with books and comics adaptations; in the same way Marvel and DC, unable to effectively engage new readers with good comics stories, try to wield the magic of big screen in attempts to expand their brands’ audience.
The efforts of Marvel and DC to gain big sales and big money, supplemented with a long history and a big fan base, in recent years paradoxically made mainstream comics a very closed, somewhat unfriendly culture. The word “mainstream” doesn’t fit the Big Two anymore. Because this “stream” requires a great ability to swim, and it’s not welcoming for new swimmers.