“Whatever happened to comic books?” This is a question that has been on the minds of fans of the medium for several years now, but only recently has it begun to receive more attention. A combination of factors has brought us to where we are today: local comic book shops shutting down at a geometric rate, books being canceled and re-launched with ignorant impunity, and characters becoming gross misrepresentations of that which the lion’s share of fans grew up with and have a desire to read about. The culmination of these factors and others has resulted in a demonstrable drop in overall comic book sales from not only the Big Two (DC and Marvel) but also from other, smaller publishers as well, with them largely getting outsold by the booming Japanese manga market. To add to the ire of fans and customers, many professionals within the comic book industry have been blasting their consumer base on various social media platforms, responding to criticisms of their work with certifiably unprofessional statements. What, then, must be done to revitalize this seemingly terminal industry?
Creators must be respectful of how the characters were created to be. DC and Marvel have taken a lot of flack in recent years for their portrayal of mainstay characters within their respective books. Entire story arcs have been published that showcase characters such as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America, Superman, or Batman as so far removed from everything we know about these characters that the book is related to them in name only. Nick Spencer was notorious for this with his run on Captain America, wherein the historically patriotic titular character was revealed to have secretly been a Hydra sleeper agent for decades. This, naturally, went over with fans about as well as any sane person would expect – not well at all. And soon, Marvel and Spencer were forced to backpedal in an attempt to repair and reverse the damage, but that damage had been done. It took some time, but Spencer was given the lead writer position on The Amazing Spider-Man. The opening issue of his arc set what fans hoped would be the consistent tone for the run, with Peter and Mary Jane Watson at long last reuniting and realizing that they truly were meant to be. The run thus far has been hot and cold, with some issues being undeniably fun romps through the panels, and others showing characters being written in an unlikeable manner akin to a middle school girl (and I’m referring to Peter here, not any of the female cast).
This problem of writers showing a complete lack of understanding of the characters of whom they are supposed to be taking the reins has extended to DC too, with heroes such as Batman being written in an early 2000s, emo, introspective manner. This isn’t to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with introspection for characters; the opposite is true. However, when a writer inserts themselves into the character without retaining who that character is at their core, it becomes a problem. An example of this would be the recent DC “event” Heroes in Crisis. I’ll preface this by stating that Tom King has shown a good writer at times in the past (his Mister Miracle and first twenty-something issues on DC Rebirth Batman were mostly well-received), but his portrayal of mainstay DC characters in this event is so far removed from who they are that it is beyond frustrating to read. So much of the dialogue reads nothing like these people, and any reader of a sciential status would ask, “Who are these people? No one talks like this!” Additionally, the story ignores much of what DC has been doing thus far with their Rebirth arc. Joshua Williamson, the current writer for The Flash, had quite literally just established Wally West as the fastest being to have ever existed in the DC multiverse, and that he was to be one of the greatest heroes of all time, and yet Tom King decides to kill him off-panel. This, while likely to be undone with some time-traveling shenanigans, either by Booster Gold (another central character in the event) or in some other fashion, is entirely disrespectful to not only what Williamson was setting up following the Flash War event (solid event – I recommend checking it out), but also to hardcore classic Wally West fans (of which I am amongst), who were elated to have finally had our favorite speedster return to continuity. This leads to another issue with modern comic books, and that is the subversion of readers’ expectations.
Subverting expectations is something that DC and Marvel have apparently learned from the writing team at WWE. This stems from the notion that an angry consumer is an engaged consumer, and while this may be true to an extent with professional wrestling, as it is primarily a live viewing and interactive experience, the same cannot be said of comic books. This is represented by the outcry and backlash DC received after Tom King’s notorious Batman #50, in which fans were eagerly awaiting the marriage of Batman and Catwoman. Shills aside, virtually no one was pleased that all of the build-up to the historic moment in Bruce Wayne’s life ended with him being left at the altar by Selena Kyle; that includes both readers and retailers who had tried to get their hands on as many variant covers as possible in anticipation of the big day by ordering a staggering amount of copies of the milestone issue. Furthermore, ever since being ditched at the altar, Tom King’s Batman has been written as the most ineffectual beta male imaginable who is constantly whining about how unhappy he is. I’m not the world biggest Dark Knight fan, but I am knowledgable on the character enough to know that this is throw-away garbage and not at all in-line with the character. Regardless of how the present Batman arc is going, Tom King will forever be remembered as the guy who made the vast majority of fans and retailers who purchased Batman #50 want an immediate refund for the dirty tactics. Comic book fans don’t want to be pissed off to be engaged; we want to be happily engaged (much like Bruce Wayne thought he was, I would imagine).
Creators must learn to take criticism with grace and humility. Insert obnoxious clapping hands here: creators cannot continue to call their paying customers racists, sexists, misogynists, etc. Full-stop. Firstly, geek culture and natural diversity are concomitant of one another in that people male, female, of all ethnicities and shades, backgrounds, and preferences love superheroes. And this false narrative that one must look exactly like a character in order to like them is simultaneously ignorant and arrogant. I don’t have to be a white female to like Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, and yet she’s one of my favorite characters and her reintroduction to the DC universe in 2004 by the superstar team of Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner is quite literally what brought me back into American comic books in the first place. In that same vein, I can’t stand a character like the present representation of Carol Danvers – I’m sorry, Carl Manvers – who has been presented as one of the most ostensibly unlikable characters in modern comic book continuity. Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel from the early 2000s was truly an apex for female superheroes. She was charismatic, intelligent, had a completely different lens through which she saw and processed events in the Marvel universe (including the first Civil War), and she was a certifiable bombshell to boot. When longtime fans of a given book take to social media to interact with the current creative teams behind the said book and have some criticisms of however they may be presented, these creators must act professionally. There can be no exception to this; in virtually every field out there wherein your job requires you interact with consumers on some level, if you fly off the handle on those customers, it’s your tuckus that’s in trouble, not theirs. So if a fan says something critical of your work, take it in stride, and see what fan consensus is – after all, they are the paying customer, and they get to vote with their wallet as to whether or not you retain your job. That said, there are undoubtedly times when a fan becomes mordant and may have a particularly hot n’ spicy take that comes off as more than simply critical, and it’s times like these where that respect is a door that swings both ways. Fans don’t need to blast creators with obscenities either; it’s not productive, and it only further bifurcates the fandom.
Make the characters attractive again. I mentioned the former Ms. Marvel/now Captain Marvel Carol Danvers; she was a genuine bombshell of a female hero with personality and power to match her good looks. This is an industry standard that has been long forgotten, and if comic books are to return to their glory, it is one that should be remembered with all due haste. Now, before an angry mob shouts that I’m just some shallow misogynist, let me be clear that this is with regards to the presentation of both male and female characters. Comic books are a visual medium, and people, both guys, and gals, mostly want to look at things that are attractive and not that which makes their eyes bleed. This conclusion should be axiomatic; otherwise, the reader would be reading any regular, 500-page novel because pictures mean nothing to their enjoyment of the story. When I’m reading about one of my favorite male heroes I should look at them and say to myself, “Self, you need to get your butt back to the gym so you can try to look like that!” Now, of course, superheroes are just that – “super” – and they are meant to be the idealized version of the peak or apex of the human physical form in many cases; otherwise, it would be far less believable for them to do what they do. As for the female heroes, call me a shameful male all you want, but I should take one look at Mary Jane Watson, Emma Frost, Wonder Woman, or Jean Grey and immediately want to marry that gal! The comic book artists of the 90’s understood both of these ideas, but many artists today measurably less so. There are still artists whose works harken back to gorgeous glory, but far more often than not they are variant cover artists now, and their masterful pencil work seldom touches the interior of any book, But when they do, the book sells like wildfire, and isn’t the goal to sell more books? I was making my usual rounds at my local comic book shop just the other day when another customer came in and was talking about being interested in a certain book’s story but feeling that the characters were presented “too sexually.” The shop owner, everyone else in the store (females included), and I wondered aloud why that was a problem, and I asked him if he’d truly prefer to look at a book, that is a story told largely through illustrations, with dull or ugly art? Breaking news: sex sells. You can like it or not, but if you deny it, then you’re living in a dystopian state of immurement. I recall just a handful of years ago when certain online publications began to comment on the “over-sexualization” of comic book characters. These were individuals who were not comic book fans themselves. They’d likely spent most of their adult lives with their faces buried in fanciful romance novels, and really possessed no ground to stand on with their verbal trashing of these characters, any more than a choir boy should criticize someone who listens to hard metal when he’d never listened to it before in his life, or vice-versa. And yet these people saw an opportunity to elevate themselves onto a pedestal of purity as glistening, white knights. If a guy tells you that he’d rather look at Plain Jane over bombshell Mary Jane, he’s lying, and if a gal says she’d rather read about Blob than Arthur Curry, she’s full of it too, plain and simple.
Stop using comic books as your platform and beloved characters as mouthpieces for your social and political views. I do not care what your politics are, whether I share them or not; keep them out of the books. When your works blatantly lean heavily to one side of the aisle or another you are essentially running the risk of alienating half of your potential consumer base, so why do it? Again, the goal is to sell more comic books, not fewer, right? You’re a writer or an artist, and your calling in life is to provide a source of entertainment, inspiration, and escapism, not contribute to an already depressing 24-hour news cycle. If I want political takes, I’ll turn on the TV; from you, I only wish to be entertained. You are an entertainer, not a messiah or superhero with the calling of pulling everyone into your way of thinking. This sort of quixotism may suit op-ed pieces in newspapers or garbage-tier media sites, but it has no place in comic books. And yet it has seeped its way into the industry and set its roots deep like an oak; the ramifications of this have already been mentioned, and the result is a rotting husk. Beating readers to death with your politics, whether in the actual product or on social media, doesn’t make you some holier-than-I hero; it makes you an abysmal entertainer, as your goal should be to reach and fascinate as many people as possible. So as not to be misconstrued, many comic books in the past held political and social tones to them. What’s the difference? It’s the vilifying of people who disagree with the message; if the scaling of your readers reveals that they aren’t happy with the present direction of a book, change it so that you not only retain their custom but also gain that of those who were turned off from the get-go. So what if our personal views differ? I don’t support you because I agree with you on everything that can happen in life; I do so for your talents, for which I will gladly pay you. I can most assuredly say that a disproportionate number of my favorite creators hold views that are night and day with my own, and the same can likely be said of many comic book fans. But I don’t care, because at the end of the day, I am hungry for entertainment and looking to give my business to someone offering what I’m seeking, and they are the hot dog vendors with wares to offer. This is symbiosis in perfect exemplification, and so long as creators offer what more people want, more people will come to them with money in hand. Call us crazy, but we want to want to give you our money! So enough with your preachy, tyrannical X-Men Red, your woke Carl Manvers, and your feminist agenda Mockingbird; just make fun comic books, for the love of all that is good. As I mentioned, geekdom and diversity are naturally concurrent, and regardless of our differing personal views on life, we want to give you our money if only you’ll respectfully entertain our imaginations. There is a growing pool of alternative options for those who are sick and tired of being disrespected, disappointed, preached to, and vilified, and fans are clearly not shy about telling content creators precisely what they think – all it takes is sliding that wallet right back into the pocket from whence it came.