Scribbler’s Saga #29 – Endings are Your Friend

Posted: April 26, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

Marvel Comics has recently figuratively and rudely speaking stepped on its…ahem! And Blue Facebook has blown up in response to the various flaps. Here. And here. Or here. And lastly here

As usual with my column, I try to find the writing solution to things that are otherwise too political for this space. I agree with the authors in the above linked articles that perhaps Marvel puts out too many books in each of their character groups. Or the similar and related criticism that events, crossovers and other forms of fan service publishing can dilute interest in each book affected, yes, I also agree. For my two cents, I would like to propose an end or at least dramatic reduction to the very concept of the monthly ongoing title.

Why? Because possibly comic book writing needs to have a better feeling of an ending than currently provided by an open ended format that goes until tastes change and sales tank right into the toilet. I noticed as I considered my own reading/media consumption habits that I don’t gravitate very often to the true ongoing storytelling of comics and daily soap operas. Yes, I do like certain shows slightly derived from the soap opera format. But, they’re all produced in what has come to be called the evening soap opera format where the writing staff only has to create 13-24 episodes a year and thus can edit out much of the overexposed minutiae of their characters’s lives going for as William Goldman put it in The Princess Bride – “the good parts edition.”

I think I always eschewed the classic soap opera form in favor of the classic cop shows broadcast at the same time on what used to be LA’s independent channels before the need to have six (later contracted to five) national networks ate up all the choices because of this issue. There might have been unconscious gender bias in that soap operas were a “female thing,” but I firmly believe that a seven-year-old boy liked that classic Hawaii 5-0 simply presented me with nearly 300 cases for my purview and didn’t bog down the narrative with extraneous details. McGarrett and company got the bad guy at the end of the episode, unless it was Wo Fat (saved for the end of the show in 1980). That and the high probability of car chases featuring those late 60s and mid-70’s land yachts that have zero business hitting those sharp hubcap popping corners and you might see why my sick at home days passed with McGarrett, Ironside, T.J. Hooker and the, I forgot his name, SFPD Inspector Karl Malden played in Streets of San Francisco.

Moving these thoughts over to comic books, I find that perhaps the Big Two (DC and Marvel) publishers, who between them cornered the market for and trademark to superheroes, might be fatally wounded for attracting new customers by the very weight of their publishing histories and the highly convoluted narrative storytelling methods used to liven up their respective character stables. So when I walk into my current home break comic book store (Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, in case you care) to see the wall of new titles in monthly floppy format I shake my head at having too many choices and then step over to the graphic novel book case usually for an “indie” title.

On that wall, you’ll see maybe three or four Batman titles and similar amounts of books featuring all the many Big Two Legacy Characters or their Not So Legacy Replacement Versions. But, every single one of those stories has to fit into that ongoing narrative based on literary mythologies beginning around 1938 when Batsie, Supes and Wonder Woman because they have been continuously in print on the monthly and sometimes bi-monthly schedules. And once it became clear that the true fans kept all their back issues, continuity mattered. So basically, the Big Two became soap opera-like in their storytelling and might not have seen it coming.

Part of my beef against the daily soap opera form and the similar animal comics mutated into is that having too much content and history creates a tendency to meander. The classic monster-themed Dark Shadows soap that should have been right up my alley was famously reported to me by a slightly older friend (I was three when the show got cancelled) who could watch as having a staggering amount of alternate universe digressions. So how the fuck am I supposed to make sense of the show now that I’m old enough to pluck out what’s available on Hulu?

Similarly, Big Two continuity seems to do the same things that in order to keep readers interested in their titles where they try experiments to liven things up between regular stories that could be boring over the long haul. A precarious balance exists between Batman fights the Joker and how many times can Batsie get up in Joker’s grill before someone dies? So over the years, like Dark Shadows, General Hospital, Big Two comics have created all kinds sub-continuities and alternate Earths. They also temporarily remove characters and bring them back to great fanfare all while keeping the majority of this storytelling in the main continuity.

Once a decade since 1986 the Big Two clean house creating challenges to published reality that trims out stories (only to reintroduce them later in slightly altered form). These house cleanings become events that sold well encouraging more events. Other events rely on a massive crossover put everybody in the book methodology. Massive crossovers can lead to too many Bat-titles, or Spider-titles to tell the full story, which is one way to get to the observation that the Big Two are publishing themselves out of their marketplace by producing more of their products than readers actually want.

The Diversity-Don’t-Sell-Gate part of Marvel’s recent problems can be seen in light of the ongoing trend towards temporary experimentation, emphasis on temporary. The overall makeup of comics readership has changed where the Big Two have to balance new readers against old readers trained by the ongoing monthly book to expect things will always be so. Old readers will tell you who Batman has always been and confidently assert that Bruce Wayne will get miracle spine surgery to come back after Knightfall.

So, for instance, when faced with a brilliant young lady POC taking over as Iron Man, some of these older readers freak out asserting – “we understand but don’t do this at the expense of my comic books! Make new characters that handle diversity and promote them!” I’m not sure the Big Two even know how to market new characters that are less then five years old, but I feel certain that putting Replacement POC Iron Girl (Iron Man) up against perhaps fifteen Avengers and related single-character standalone books did her no favors.

Back to my proposal for less monthly ongoing titles, what do I mean? I mean a shift to more standalone books, where a publisher can compartmentalize Earth-1095 versions of characters and other experiments into a six to twelve issue run that has zero connectivity with the rest of the stable, unless somebody in the future wants to reference the work. Ideally, in an ask for it but the Powers that Be don’t have to listen to just me kind of way, this means a little more go straight to the trade paperback publishing.

Of course, this is me as a novel reader commenting that even when I wade into a series of novels each story begins, middles and ends and I’m left to imagine the spaces between books. But, many novel series are also designed to have a predetermined ending. Harry Potter ends at seven novels and one play because representative of British schooling and the need for one postscript story, Sweetie! Or Song of Fire and Ice will end at seven books because “Dude, the ice zombies from beyond the Wall are, like, dead and someone from among the many focus characters used their contribution to making a Westeros free of ice zombies to win the Monarch Derby.”

In comic books stories do end, but when they are part of main continuity they are called story arcs and later packaged in trade paperbacks only modestly different from a graphic novel. A graphic novel (to the extent that the concept is not a made up marketing term to make it okay for adults to read comic books) is a story designed to end in the same way as a regular novel and is published all at once. A story arc collects a set number of issues that make up one story. To my thinking many of these story arcs, especially the experimental ones should just go straight to trade and isolate them from main continuity that requires frequent usage of Wikipedia to understand.

Marvel might have created less grief for themselves if the recent Captain-America-Nazi-Gate were more clearly isolated into a What if or Elsewords kind of limited series that used to be part of the Big Two publishing model. Putting the story in context with every other Captain America story requires more narrative legerdemain that needs to experiment to heighten reader interest than many readers are willing to tolerate.

It doesn’t matter that savvy literary analysis can use Three Act Structure to get to Dev Patel’s line in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – “things always work out in the end, if things aren’t okay, then it isn’t the end.” Cap as a Nazi first seemed like one of many experimental stunts designed to shock more sales out of a legacy Nazi-fighting character, but then Marvel doubled down and tripled down by apparently making it a permanent change relying on the Cosmic Cube Infinity Stone and then sending out the T-shirts. So Cap as a Nazi will be another of many “reversals to reverse things which had already been reversed” found in such dense and impenetrable comics continuities. But, it doesn’t feel that way right now.

Would Marvel using a model of a small few ongoing titles and publishing everything else as trades solve the blowback? I don’t know. I’m one guy with a preference for complete stories who gets whiny contemplating the soft floppy books because I’ll forget to tune in next month for the next issue. Buying the trade a few months later works better for me because I just can’t use up any more of my thousand square feet on monthly books. My suggestion is at least one way to experiment with trimming down on the intimidation factor of seeing that wall in the comic book store where some characters need their own section and your head explodes trying to keep up.

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