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July 27th, 2012

Are Superheroes Dying?


It’s hard to not hear this living in Portland, the hub of comic creativity in the known universe. Superheroes are dying, folks. I don’t mean that individual characters are going to pass on just to come back in a few years with the next big event. I mean that the industry of superhero comics as a whole are on their way out. What we’re seeing now is possibly one of the last generations of capes and cowls in comic form. With the rise of independent and creator owned comics, the steady decline in sales for superhero titles, and the constant attempts on the part of DC and Marvel comics to reinvigorate their image (New 52, Marvel NOW!) it’s easy to see where the cynics are coming from when they declare that a 70+ year genre of entertainment is whispering its death rattle.

I’ll admit, the constant altering of characters continuity, the double shipping of issues, the rising price point per unit, the sexism and racism becoming commonplace with DC, and relying on plot ideas and creators that were horrible 20 years ago has left me very fatigued and often jaded towards an industry that’s responsible for my being able to read and love for literature. Instead of being wowed and filled with euphoria like I was as a child I’ve now become a slave who just buys my comics for fear of breaking up my run or that one issue will contain a plot point essential to the next event that will likely peek its head in a few months. There are more than 12 regular X-Men books in publication right now, some of which are put out 2-3 times a month, and I buy them all. It doesn’t matter that some of them suck, certain characters appear in all of them regardless of the logic, or that I know the only reason they put these books out so frequently and with so many titles is because people like me will buy them because we’re hopelessly addicted. I almost want the industry to die just to give my broke ass a financial respite.

Despite the obvious above mentioned problems and my bleeding bank account, I actually think it’s unfair to say that superheroes (or even superhero comics) are dying. In fact, I feel that what we’re in the middle of right now is a complete superhero renaissance. While we see sales in mainstream superhero comics declining and reaching for readers, we’re also seeing interesting remixes on the genre with titles like Ex Machina, Hellboy, Invincible and Kick-Ass. These stories contain characters that grow, make decisions and age as the story goes on, implying that there’s an actual ending to this instead of the prime time television monster-of-the-week manufacturing of stories. I like to think of stories along this line as “modern superheroes”. So while some say that the genre is dying, I chose to think that it’s changing. What isn’t changing with them is Marvel and DC.

I love superheroes from the very bottom of my everything. I learned morality through them, I learned how to tell a story through them, and I learned an appreciation for art and literature through them. I do not want to see them go. What I do want is for the big 2 to see what is inherently wrong with their genre and fix it. What they have now is pulp fiction at its best trying desperately to stay relevant. And that’s just it; that style of serialized storytelling where characters never age and it’s just adventure after adventure without any real progression, especially at the pace that Marvel and DC put them out, is over.

It seems that the only way the big 2 know how to combat the issue of their fading relevance is by raising their prices, shoving as many titles down your throat as possible and feeding you it every meal. Forgive me for sounding a little like Jerry Maguire, but what we need is fewer comics. My completely unscientific and biased survey of comic readers has shown that people love comic book superheroes, but in order to keep up with them you need to develop a crack like addiction and have the money to spend. Even readers that have that addiction are incredibly susceptible to burnout. It’s almost as if the big 2 want to lose their audience, or at the least not increase it.

To this I have a proposition to the big 2 that I know won’t listen. Don’t let your superheroes die. KILL THEM!!! Put an end to it and start the characters again, only this time with an actual plan, including an exit strategy. Start small with your focus set on the main characters in your universe and build towards a strong narrative. Learn a lesson from your films, tell a strong story with a real direction without having 4 Avengers titles, 12 X-Men titles, 13 Batman titles, 4 Green Lantern titles, etc. In fact, you don’t even need monthly books. If you want to really give people what they’re looking for, give them a novel. Every year give us a full story that really pushes your characters and plot forward. Every story in superhero comics is already written with intent on being a graphic novel anyway, now you can add legitimacy to the medium by releasing it as such in a polished format. DC has already been doing it with Earth One and Marvel with their Season 1 line. Complete stories that aren’t bogged down by continuity or numerous single issues.

I actually agree with the concept that DC went with for their relaunch, but their execution has been horrible. End the Marvel and DC with the end all event. Retire them and then perform your tabula rasa and start over with the characters in their most pure form. Marvel has already created their new and improved universe with their Ultimate line. While it hasn’t been perfect in its 11 year life span, it’s kept the right idea. The universe has never been more than 4 monthly books, the stories are compelling and the creators aren’t afraid to really let their characters grow. In my article on the DC New 52, I explain the way DC should have gone with their reboot, and judging by how horrible and unfocused their line has been I’d have to agree with myself stronger now than ever before.

There will always be a place for superheroes in comics, but only if the creators wise up and see that the winds are changing. We see this in many long established markets. The movie, TV and music industry we’re terrified of the Internet. They fought so hard to go against the current and ended up hurting themselves so much more as opposed to embracing the obvious way of the future. The way of the future for the comic industry is quality over quantity. Being a fan of the genre for over 20 years that truth has become clearer with each passing day.

At some point along the way these universes stopped being about strong story and became franchises. If we want to keep the genre alive with a chance for it to flourish again you need to reinvent it, much in the way that the creator owned superhero comics have. Focus on your plot, don’t go crazy with 400 X-Men and don’t try to build a Roman Empire. Be small, be smart, and be tight. Make yourself relevant again by telling the stories people actually want to read.

Mikey Neilson

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