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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why Is It So HARD For Marvel and DC to Publish GOOD Comics These Days?

The Marvel Universe is ending this year. And the DC Universe is just a Mess. At Marvel and DC the cycle for publishing comics the last 20 years has been: Gimmicks. Events. Cancellations. Reboots. Which are followed by more gimmicks, events, cancellations and reboots. Seriously, why is it so hard to for people at the Big two to publish good Comic books these days?

Both Marvel and DC are divisions of multibillion dollar corporations. DC Comics has been a subsidiary of Time Warner for over 35 years. Marvel Comics has been a subsidiary of Disney for close to five. But even with billion dollar budgets and staffs of hundreds of editors, writers and artists, neither company can consistently produce quality comics on a regular basis these days.

It’s funny How Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Marvel Universe with a tenth of the money and Just Stan and Jack writing and drawing most of the comics in the 1960’s. And this is in addition to publishing romance comics, western comics, horror comics and teen comics like Patsy Walker at the same time they started publishing superheroes again.

And DC Comics ran like a well-oiled machine under Jeanette Kahn for over 25 years. A testament to her skill as an editor and a manager of the DC Comics brand. Pre-Crisis, Post Crisis, readers could just pick up any comic book and start reading. And In a month or two they were regular buyers of DC Comics.

The people working at Marvel and DC today act like it’s so hard to manage a universe of characters and create new stories for them. They think it’s impossible to make comics easy to read without pre-made entry points, reboots, and other events. I don’t know, is it that hard to produce comics? Is the history that hard to navigate? Is the continuity that bogged down? Or are most of the people working in comics today at the big two just thinking too hard about this?

Archie Comics has been around for about the same time as Marvel and DC. And they haven’t had a problem maintaining their quality in 75 or so years. In fact they’ve been expanding the last few years and trying a lot of new and exciting things with their catalog of characters. And the new comics they produce are as easy to get into as the old ones.

Image Comics hasn’t had a problem in the 25 years they’ve been publishing comics like Spawn and Savage Dragon. Neither has the new Valiant. Currently both are producing some of the best comics in the medium right now. Most people don’t have a problem with getting into their comics and enjoying them.

Webcomics artists don’t have a problem creating new stories or referencing previous material from their own work. R.K. Milholland’s Something*Positive has been around about 13 going on 14 years now. And Randy’s new strips are as fresh as the ones from 2002 when he started. And Jeph Jacques Questionable Content has been great for the past few years it’s been online. Most people don’t have a problem getting into these webcomics and others and following them even though many started YEARS ago.

DC’s veteran Animators didn’t have a problem with the history of DC Comics either. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm had no problem using DC Comics’ rich history to make the DC Animated Universe continuity run smoothly in between five different series. A real testament to quality when you consider the Batman Beyond a series set in the future of the Timmverse started in1999 seamlessly flows right into Justice League which came out in 2001 and Justice League Unlimited which started in 2003. And all these series flow seamlessly into Superman: The Animated Series which started in 1997 and Batman: The Amimated Series which started in 1992. What’s even crazier is that Static Shock which started airing in 2000 also flows just as seamlessly into all of the mentioned DC animated TV series with no problems.

And Greg Weisman had no problem using DC Comics rich history to make Young Justice and The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series fresh and new while he adapted both classic and modern storylines from those comics a few years ago. On Avengers, Wiesman smoothly transitioned from Classic Marvel storylines like the Avengers Origin and the Masters of Evil from the 60’s to modern ones like Secret Invasion and Red Hulk without skipping a single beat. And on Young Justice Weisman took us from the Classic DC Universe, the modern DC Universe, the Milestone Universe and the History of the Teen Titans all while making DC’s young heroes fresh and new for a generation of fans.

All these animated programs featuring both Marvel and DC’s catalogs of characters are easy to follow. Easy to get into. Many even put a fresh take on some of the characters for new audiences.

And even I don’t have a problem writing serialized stories. I use the same approach to storytelling that Marvel and DC’s oldschool creative teams use when I write books and eBooks in the Isis series and the E’steem series. Every story is a single self-contained volume. Every story is its own entry point with its own beginning, middle and end. And events in almost every story connects with events other stories and larger novels like The Temptation of John Haynes seamlessly.

But the writers who work on major comic book characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-man, Captain America and the Hulk today can’t use that same model for creating comics that are consistently fresh and entertaining. Seriously, what is everyone else doing right that Marvel and DC doing wrong?

It’s kind of embarrassing that an unemployed guy working out of his South Bronx bedroom on a shoestring budget can get a model for comic book storytelling to work on self-published books and eBooks but hundreds of employees at PAIR of divisions of a multibillion corporation can’t. Seriously, what are they paying these people for?

Almost everyone working at Marvel and DC from the editors to the interns will tell you: The continuity is too hard to work with. The character’s history is too long and convoluted.  The character’s look is dated. And this is why comics are hard to get into.

Excuses, excuses, excuses as I see it.

Here’s the deal: Maybe it’s not the characters or the continuity. Maybe the people working at Marvel and DC today just SUCK at publishing comics.

The way I see it the story paradigm for comic books isn’t broken. The big problem at Marvel and DC is people keep trying to fix things that aren’t broken in comics in an attempt to fix something else and then break things even further. And the main reason why they keep trying to fix things is because they have no idea how stories work in the comic book medium. That’s what’s leading to the vicious cycle of gimmicks, events retcons, cancellations and reboots at the big two.

Over the last 25 years Marvel and DC’s staff have done everything to solve the problem of their slowing sales. Their catalogs of characters have had dozens of  New costumes. New Logos. New powers. New premises. And a even a few brand New Universes. But the same creative people producing the same old results. Mediocre comics no one wants to buy at prices that get higher every year.

And when things don’t work these same people continue make the same old excuses. It’s the characters and the continuity. The same characters and continuity that worked well for everyone else before them like Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Chuck Dixon, Mark Waid, Alex Ross, George Perez, Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Stan Lee and the late Jack Kirby. The same characters and continuity that would probably work well for me or many of these webcomic artists if we got jobs at Marvel and DC and worked with a competent editorial team leading the brand.

Marvel and DC have a lot of educated and skilled people working for them, but not a lot of craftspeople. Skill is technical, and you can get it in any college or art school, but Craft is something unique, something special. Craft is the combination of talent, skill, and experience that allows someone to instinctively know how to make something in the arts work. I believe if there were more craftspeople working at Marvel and DC they wouldn’t have half the problems they’re encountering right now with continuity and character histories. 

A Craftsperson understands the mechanics of writing and storyboarding. And unfortunately while we have a lot of talented people working at Marvel and DC they haven’t learned the craft of storytelling.

Craftspeople understand the mechanics and nuances of storytelling in a medium like comic books and how to make things work just right. They understand what words to use to set up a scene for an artist. They understand how much dialogue is enough to move a scene forward and where to put a plot point to keep the reader compelled to buy the next issue. They understand how to place the action just so in order for there to be room for the sound effects and the dialogue. They understand what facial expressions will convey the emotions or how to tell the story of an entire book in one single solitary image. When you look at a lot of the comics published at Marvel and DC these days, there’s a lot of words and pictures, but very little craft in them.

And sadly thanks to the excesses of the 1990’s there’s no one experienced enough to teach the craft of comic book storytelling to the next generation of talent working at Marvel or DC. Many of the veteran artists and writers like George Perez and Ron Frenz who used to work at Marvel and DC left are now working and places like Image, Valiant, Boom! Dynamite and Archie.

I’m thinking maybe that’s why their comics are so great these days. The creators know what craft is and instinctively know what makes a great comic book story.

The common denominator at Marvel and DC seem to be the editors and the creative people who and the editors who work there. I’m thinking instead of having another reboot of the characters and their universes, maybe there just needs to be a complete housecleaning at BOTH Marvel and DC. The way I see it The house of No Ideas and their Dysfunctional Competition need new blood and they needed it 10 years ago. Perhaps fresh talent under the direction of a seasoned craftsperson with publishing experience can utilize the histories of the characters and return to giving readers quality comics featuring Marvel and DC’s large catalog of heroes.

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