The Fifth Color | Comic books can never die
I had a dream last night that comic books were dead. It wasn’t a bullet or a ray gun that killed them; it was just economics and a general shift of popular culture. The bottom dropped out of the New 52 and DC couldn’t regain lost readers. Marvel moved out to Los Angeles, and their publishing arm waned after relentless budget cuts and eventually dwindled down to nothing. Robert Kirkman had a huge lawsuit over rights and appropriations, and he left to go work on movies and television, taking a lot of young hopefuls with him. Popular titles got sold off like police auctions, and creators left comics for the greener and more lucrative pastures of other media. Less comics came out every week, leaving comic shops to stock up on action figures or Magic cards, eventually phasing out their back issue stock and relegating comics to a small corner of the store. Eventually, comics just disappeared entirely.
After the massive, colossal hit that is Marvel’s The Avengers, there’s a lot of buzz in the air about what comes next. What will be the next property to hit the big screen? Will it tie into the new movie continuity? Will Joss direct the next Avengers installment? Even on my way into the theater for the midnight showing of the Avengers movie, I had friends trying to tell me what the next “obvious” sequel was going to be. With as much success as Marvel Studios has seen this year and others, the doors are wide open for all sorts of properties to find fresh new life in a whole new medium. But none of this brave new frontier of pop culture seems to really involve the actual comics medium. So let’s talk about it.
Perfect example: I had a guy come into my store yesterday, a college-aged guy fresh out of the movie theater and super excited. He asked us if we had any Avengers movie posters; I told him no, but! We did have some really awesome Avengers posters from the comics. He considered the box art for the new Wizkids miniature game, shrugged his shoulders and left without a single glance at the comics display we had set up. He had no interest in the comics that the movie came from, the original artwork or the legacy that brought those heroes to these incredible lucrative heights; he just wanted the movie version and without it, he walked on. Out of the millions of dollars the Avengers movie has made (and will continue to make through the summer), will comic shops see a fraction of it? Again, only my estimation, but we had our best movie-to-comics interest gain after the first Iron Man movie, when Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s new first issue hit around the same time as the film. I’m not saying we sold it like gangbusters, but there was a surge of interest in the character who had until then been the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., an instrumental force in Civil War and well, kind of a tool. Robert Downey Jr. made being a jerk look cool, and we sold a few more issues of the new series on character recognition. Fraction and Larocca did the rest to keep people entertained.
But that’s not really the best example, either. While Invincible Iron Man sold a few more copies and gained a few more readers from the new movie’s take on the character, if we really want to talk about success, we have to talk about The Walking Dead. The TV show has helped sell scads of trade paperbacks and hardcovers, as fans of the show are eager for more in the dry months between seasons. Demand has been overwhelming for Walking Dead trades, and I’ve had some customers who come in daily to grab a book and get their fix. Here’s the rub: Our ravenous zombie fans who jump the hurdle of accepting the story in another medium want everything, and there are only so many trades. Hungry readers want to know when the next Walking Dead Compendium is coming out. When I have to explain that it’ll probably be out after the 100th issue comes out in July, then the immediacy is gone. Without their fix, the Walking Dead junkie will have to wait, and waiting doesn’t mean they’re going to pick up a new issue of Superman.
The more comics hit big among the mainstream and attract more and more of a casual audience, how we view comics as a whole changes. The fifth color I tried to name this column after, the reader’s own viewpoint that colors the work presented on the page, washes out some. The fan niche market doesn’t need to be courted in order to make money, the product does that all by itself. Star Trek had to go through something similar; despite the die-hard fan base, the movie reboot has changed the way people look at Gene Roddenberry’s view of the future. It may never be again what it once was.
That’s not an entirely negative statement; as a fan of science-fiction and the X-Men, change can be good! Evolving to a new… something, whatever it is, doesn’t diminish what came before, it can finally let it breathe. People who thrilled to Zachary Quinto as Spock can go back and watch Leonard Nimoy in the same role and gain more for venturing into (by them) undiscovered country.
There is a show called Top Gear, aimed at car fanboys, that I get to watch on BBC America from time to time. I don’t drive nor will I ever own some of the crazy expensive cars they show off, but I love their enthusiasm and the outlook on their own particular fandom. On an episode that talks about “the most important car in a hundred years,” the Honda FCX Clarity, they take it on a drive around Los Angeles (which is the only place the hydrogen-fueled car is available). They list off its features and advancements with a resigned sort of wonder. When explaining the inner workings, even the cameraman would rather pan to some girls on the beach than accept the strange new world this car represents. It’s not an exciting car, but it does present a greener and more responsible future. Then they talk to Jay Leno.
Jay Leno is a rabid fan of the classic car, gas guzzlers and all. Rather than hating the newfangled machine that makes a mockery of the hard-hitting engines he has stored in a personal display, Leno believes that these cars of the future might be the saviors of his gas-guzzling favorites.
“Car enthusiasts that think ‘Aw, this is going to be awful’ no it won’t. It’ll save the petrol, it’ll save your MG or your Sprite or your Midget or whatever you have. Then you go out on your weekend and you have fun, and then you can put this in the car park during the week. Much like the automobile was the savior of the horse, you know… in the cities, at least in America, horses would be whipped and they’d drop dead … and then when the car came along, it freed up the horse to be used for recreational purposes, and just the beauty of the animal or whatever you want to call it and I think these type of cars will be the savior of our sports cars, our MGs, Porches, things like that.”
What if comics weren’t the only way to see Spider-Man, but were universally known as the best way? What if the first issue of the Fantastic Four hung as a museum exhibit and Jack Kirby was treated with all the respect and reverence that Jackson Pollock, Rembrandt or even Da Vinci receive by folks besides comic fans? What if comic shops were luxury stops like an ice cream store? Sure, you can get Dreyer’s in a gallon at the grocery store, but isn’t it more special to go somewhere that’ll serve it to you in scoops?
Modern comics are evolving thanks to their success in broader media than we as comic fans are used to. Maybe more than we’re comfortable with. But that won’t mean the death of the industry. It won’t even mean the death of the Big Two publishers. It will however mean a change, and that’s a lot harder to predict than the future of a hydrogen car or even the sequel to a blockbuster movie.
In my dream, I called Matt Fraction (because I’ll only have him on speed dial in my dreams, folks). I told him about my woes, how sad I was that comics had died and how much I missed the way things used to be. Because this is my dream, Mr. Fraction listened patiently and wanted to know if he could call me back. A friend of his had dropped out on a project with him and he wanted to get my input on it. And then I woke up.