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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why Comic Book Reboots Fail

Since 1986, comic book publishers like Marvel and DC have relied on “reboots” to keep their characters fresh in the eyes of readers and to allow new readers to start reading a character’s adventures. The “reboot” concept usually requires editorial to end a long-running original series of a comic book and start over with a new number one issue. The new number one issue usually starts with an updated character origin, and a more contemporary premise.

Usually these rebooted characters are written, drawn and penciled by critically acclaimed writers and artists. And things flow smoothly for about the first 36 or 50 issues.

Then the wheels fall off the bus.

Around the 36th or 50th issue, members of the original critically acclaimed creative team who started the series leave the book. Then or the 37th or 51st issue, new lesser known artists and writers are hired to write and draw the character’s adventures. Unfortunately, it’s during the transition period between creative teams that problems arise.

As the new writers and artists try to find their footing creatively, the quality of the stories and art declines. The books’ sales start to decline and interest in the character wanes among comic readers.

Nowadays, many titles at Marvel and DC are now actually on their second, third, fourth and fifth and even sixth number one issues. What causes all these titles to collapse again a couple of years after starting over so soon?

From what I’ve observed over the past two and a half decades studying the comic book industry, a title’s creative and sales decline began during the transitional period after the initial acclaimed creative team left a title and the second lesser known creative team began its run.

What was the cause of that collapse during the transitional period? Was it the new writer? Was it the new artist? Was it a lack of chemistry between the two? In a lot of cases I couldn’t blame either the writers or the artists. Most of those writers and artists have done solid work in the past. And most went on to do other work elsewhere that was top quality.

Personally, I think what causes this collapse when one creative team leaves and another takes the reigns of a title is a lack of leadership and guidance creators have received from the editorial department. I have to wonder in a lot of cases: Did the editor make sure the new writer read all the old issues of the run before plotting their new stories? Did the editor make sure the writer had a good handle of the character by discussing their plans for the series long-term? Did the artist read all the previous issues to get a “feel” for the character? Did the artist submit model sheets for the characters? Do they have a feel for the character’s overall design? Did the writer and the artist meet with each other and the editor to discuss their short and long-term plans for the series? Are both on the same page with the editor about maintaining the mission for the character while they tell their stories?

It was clear to me by reading a few comics in transitional period between the old and new creative teams that editorial didn’t sit down with both the old writer and the new writer to plan a solid direction for the title when it was time to prepare the issues transitioning between the acclaimed author and a secondary writer. Moreover, during meetings with the second writer there wasn’t time taken to examine their work thoroughly to make sure they had a clear understanding of the character. In a lot of cases, the new writer often didn’t have a good sense of the character’s personality or “voice” before they took to the keyboard to write the story.

It was also clear to me that editorial didn’t make sure that the artist had a solid understanding of what the character looked like. A lot of times it felt like the artist hadn’t practiced enough to get a “feel” for those little nuances that make a comic book character distinct. In some cases like later 2001-2002 issues of Iron Man volume 2, and Captain America Volume 2, the character design changed from panel to panel and page to page.

Reboots in the comic book industry are a clear sign that there isn’t something wrong with the writers or the artists. It’s a clear sign that there’s something wrong with editorial management at comic book publishers. Without consistent direction and leadership from editorial to provide comic book writers and artists with guidance on how to work within structure and form of house standards, series start out strong with the first more experienced creative team and then quickly falls apart when the second inexperienced creative team comes on.

And instead of editorial management working on a comprehensive business plan that allows for a smoother transition between the issues where the old creative team leaves and the new one starts, they just take the lazy route when sales decline end the series and start over. Again.


And again.

And again.

To the aggravation and frustration of old readers and new ones.

This kind of incompetent leadership is one of the reasons why the comic book industry continues its two decades long decline downward spiral into oblivion. When long-running comic book series have five new number one issues over the course of twenty years, it’s a sign there’s apathy in editorial. This indifference from the top for the medium trickles down to the writers and the artists and leads to their work becoming more and more uninspired with each new number one issue.

The constant rebooting of comic book titles devalue the characters in the eyes of the reader and the general public. Each time there’s a new number one issue it gives veteran readers a reason to stop caring about characters they grew up with because they feel “their” stories ended with the last issue of the previous volume. Moreover the debut of a new first issue makes new readers indifferent to what makes a comic book characters great because they have no historical standpoint to connect them to the character emotionally.

Some say the new number one issues allow new readers to “jump on” a series easily, but where’s the customer’s incentive to buy back issues and pick up those stories they missed out on? Where’s the new customer’s security in knowing that the new series featuring said character will continue if the old one was cancelled so abruptly? Why should they continue buying a comic book series if there’s going to be a new number one issue in 36-72 months and the current series will end with no definite conclusion?

Storytelling is all about endings and beginnings. Setups and payoffs. And many in the comic book industry don’t understand that the reader has to CARE once they START reading comic books and they have to KEEP CARING in order for them to buy the books regularly.

All a comic book reboot does is give the reader a reason to NOT care. It creates a vicious cycle of failure, focusing on the negatives that didn’t work in the past instead of working towards improving on the positives of the character in the future. Once something is published an author can’t take it back.

God doesn’t give people reboots when they make mistakes. When we fail, fall, or go through hard times in life, we don’t start over with a brand new life. All we can do is learn from our mistakes, pick up the broken pieces of our lives and move on.

Creative mistakes in comic books aren’t fixed with a new number one issue. They’re fixed with strong editorial leadership and a clear line of communication. A good editor works with the writer and artists to make sure they synergize with the mission of the character’s story and craft work that is easy to follow and relatable to the reader.

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