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Monday, June 10, 2013

How the excesses of the 1990’s Continue to Hurt the Comic Book Medium Today

The 1990’s were a period of excesses in comic books. And the impact of those excesses are still being felt twenty years after the collapse of the comic book industry. Even though the publishing world has changed dramatically since the publishing industry collapse of 2008, Comic book publishers still continue to hold on to the very same habits that have hampered the comic book industry’s growth since 1993.

Twenty years ago artists Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld became celebrities and readers started buying comics because they featured their work, not because of the characters. Unfortunately, the focus on celebrity artists and writers has pushed characters to the background and creators to the foreground.

Comic book customers no longer buy books for the character, but because a celebrity creative team is on board. Publishers don’t promote Superman, Batman or Spider-Man. No, they promote writers and artists first. Their names in some cases are presented above the logo of the character. Symbolically this top billing tells the audience creators are more important than the characters they work on. I believe that’s a slap in the face to the reader and the original creator of the character.

Thanks to this focus on creator over character many readers don’t discover many great books by lesser known creative teams or unknown writers and artists. Worse, many new talents can’t break into the industry. The constant focus on celebrity keeps fresh talent from being able to enter the comic book medium and find an audience that will discover them and their distinct style.

The continuing focus on making writers and artists celebrities is preventing characters from reaching a larger audience of comic book readers. Characters have to come first if the comic book medium hopes to grow in the next 20 years. Kids know characters, they don’t know creators.

Storytelling has also taken a back seat to art in comic books. Today comic stories are focused on large-scale events where BIG things happen. This sales-oriented approach to storytelling was a great way to move product in the 1980s when it compelled habitual buyers to buy slower-selling midlist titles to finish a story, but today it’s a model that’s hampering access to new readers. When it takes 100 comic books spread out over the course of a year to tell a story it’s almost impossible for new readers to discover a comic book character and give their stories a try.

Worse, The big event model of storytelling is stalling the development and growth of characters long term. It’s frustrating for writers and artists who are trying to establish a character and a distinct “voice” for their characters, a mood for their book and craft a story model to cement a structure for their style when their storylines are constantly being interrupted by a major event that goes on for an entire year.  

Gimmick storytelling is also stalling the craft of writing in the comic book industry. The constant use of a death, mutilations, rapes, murders, and other tragedies may shock readers short-term, but long-term it does a lot of damage. As writers and artists keep pushing the envelope they keep escalating the gore, the violence and in some cases the nudity and sexuality to get a rise out of the reader.

Over time the characters and their stories get lost as Editors, writers, and artists start focusing on gimmicks to grab the reader’s interest. What they don’t understand is that there comes a point where the reader has read and seen so many shocking and graphically violent events in a comic book they just become numb to them. That’s why so many comic readers are apathetic about death in comics these days. It’s an overused plot device attention whores use to prop up a weak story.

Personally, I believe the overuse of gimmicks in a story prevents writers from building up conflict that develops organically and flows smoothly. It prevents characters from developing their own distinct personality and voice. All we see is them reacting to whatever shocking events are transpiring, not respond by come to their own observations and understandings about things.

Sometimes a small story has the biggest impact on a reader. A great story doesn’t need a death or some shocking moment to get the readers’ attention. Sometimes readers just want a satisfying conclusion to the story where the good guy beats the bad guy and goes on to live another day for more adventures. In my 20 years as a writer I’ve learned a simple no-nonsense story reaches more people than doing something complex and epic.

In the gimmick based “shock and awe” model of storytelling comic writers don’t develop their craft as writers. They never learn how to develop their own voice or their own style.

Artistically the 1990’s was one of the worst periods of the comic book medium. While artists like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane became celebrities for their scratchy seemingly detailed artwork, featuring costumes with numerous pouches, belts and straps it clearly doesn’t hold up to the test of time.

Twenty years later their artwork doesn’t just appear dated, it just appears ridiculous. When one takes the work of these three hacks and compares it to talents like Curt Swan, Neal Adams, John Buscema, George Perez, John Byrne, John Romita Sr., and legends like Jack Kirby, most of the art in the 1990’s just doesn’t measure up. Instead of balanced naturally proportioned figures of the human form, characters became overexaggerated, overmuscled and misproportioned wearing overdesigned, costumes that are so busy that they give the reader eyestrain looking at them. The excesses like pouches, belts and straps on many characters seem to be used to overcompensate for the lack of artistic form and technique.

Worse, their skills at storytellers were subpar to mediocre. Most of their panel work does a horrible job of conveying emotions, body language, facial expressions or telling stories with pictures. Sure, the characters appear attractive and pose like fashion models. But the pictures they draw do a horrible job of moving a story forward effectively over the course of 22 pages. Many like Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld fill up the page with big splash pages of art to overcompensate for their ability to tell a story over the course of several panels.

Many artists and writers who came up in the 1990’s followed in the path of these three hacks and their craft suffered. And many more today continue to stagnate creatively as they get supervised and mentored by editors who came into the comic book business during the dysfunctional 1990’s.

The editors who came up in this period came up in a culture of gimmicks and didn’t understand the business of publishing. Yes, they knew how to market and sell an event, but they didn’t understand how to tell stories or how to sell characters.

Story is the lifeblood of a comic book. It’s stories that establish characters as icons. It’s stories that define characters. And it’s stories that build the word-of-mouth that gets new readers to try titles.

Instead of being good stewards who advocated for the reader by fighting to preserve the integrity of the core elements of story and character, editors at comic book companies in the 1990’s instead worked to appease celebrity creators who believed they were bigger than the characters they worked on. Fearing they would leave the company and take thousands of dollars in of sales with them, they let them run roughshod over the characters they were entrusted to supervise.

And along with sating the egos of these celebrity creators, editors became obsessed with getting bigger sales by applying the “shock and awe model” of storytelling to get more attention from readers. Leaving the images and reputations of the characters they were entrusted with to be abused by writer and artist excesses.

Thanks to this dysfunctional approach to managing the publication of comic books, the industry has become a group of haves and have nots. Popular artists have been allowed to do whatever they please, while lesser known writers and artists get micromanaged and bullied.

Instead of all the talent getting objective and constructive criticism that helps everyone improve in their craft, lesser known writers and artists don’t improve in their craft and some more popular artists like Jim Lee, stagnate. Others like John Romita Jr start to regress.

The habits many learned in the 1990’s have stagnated the comic book medium and continue to keep it from growing. Over the course of twenty years these dysfunctional habits have evolved into a culture of excess that has led to the finished product of comic books becoming stale and uninspired.

In order for the comic book medium to grow in the 21st Century many older creators will have to unlearn what they learned in the 1990s, and today’s artists will have to take the lessons learned from the 1990’s period and use it as a textbook on what not to do when creating their work.

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