Modern Superhero Comics and Me – A Love/Hate Story
After a long and successful NaNoWriMo push this month (50,000 words written towards an original novel in one month, I did it – WOOHOO!), I felt that it would be nice to take a break from typing on a novel and instead kick back, relax, and read some comic books. Not just any kind of comic books, I wanted to read some new iconic superhero romps, preferably featuring my favorite characters, like Spider-Man or Captain America. By a strange stroke of luck, Marvel comics was offering a free trial period for using their Marvel Unlimited service, which is an app that operates like a sort of Netflix of Marvel comic books. For a nominal fee, you get instant access to over 10,000 comics (old & new) that are readily available to read on the service, which is a robust variety to say the least. For what it’s worth, the Marvel Unlimited service works well, so if that is something that might appeal to you then definitely check it out. Unfortunately, in my attempts to try and catch up with the more recent superhero adventures, I found that it was not a world that I was ready to come back to, at least not in its current state. Superhero comics today, especially those made by Marvel and DC have gotten out of control on their reliance of event series and large multi-book arcs that go against the foundation of the characters that have been established for decades. It’s been this way for awhile now, and every now and then I try to read some current comics to see if things have improved, and woefully they have not. Not by a long shot.
I got out of purchasing monthly comics many years ago for one amazingly simple reason: the value proposition was not there anymore. In my youth, comic books cost roughly a dollar a comic, and by the time I got out a couple decades later, most mainstream books were $4 a book. $4 for a 23 page comic book. I could buy a fancy 600 page hardcover edition of a novel for less than $20, so why would I pay $4 for 23 pages. I understand that fluctuations in the economy, along with inflation, and an increase in the quality of the materials used to print modern comics have all contributed to the increased cost of monthly comic books, but even still I could not justify dropping regular money on comics anymore. And I say this as someone who loves superhero comics. I genuinely love them. I love the secret identities, the goofy costumes, the over the top action, the quirky side characters, the romance, the intricate continuity… I love all of it. From 1982-2012 I read comics religiously. This is not hyperbole, this is fact. Once the smoke cleared from my comic book collecting obsession, I found myself with a collection that resulted in no less than 24 long boxes full of comics. For those of you who may not know, a long box can hold upwards of 300 comics, so having 24 meant that I owned roughly 7,200 comic books. The bulk of my collection was split about 70/30 between Marvel and DC Comics super hero books, with a healthy spattering of Dark Horse, Image, Aspen, Archie, Valiant and IDW books as well. 30 solid years of my life had been dedicated to making myself a walking encyclopedia of absolutely useless knowledge.
- Secret Wars: My mind was blown when Spider-Man received his alien symbiote suit, the iconic black suit.
- Crisis on Infinite Earths: I was there when Supergirl & The Flash died way back in the mid 80’s, and it was gut wrenching.
- The Clone Saga: I’m still reeling from the franchise destroying story that nearly brought Marvel comics and Spider-Man past the point of no return (yes Virginia, it was really that bad).
- Spider-Man’s Wedding: I cried… not because it was beautiful, because I didn’t want Peter Parker to marry Mary Jane!
- Dark Phoenix Saga: Poor Jean Grey… ‘Nuff said!
- The Man Without Fear: I was there when Matt Murdock’s origin got properly fleshed out and Daredevil re-emerged as the tortured soul that believed that he was the sole figure that could save Hell’s Kitchen from rampant crime and it’s seedy organized crime underbelly.
- Infinity Gauntlet: I remember it like I had read it yesterday and I can even tell you why legendary artist George Perez didn’t finish the art for the last 2 issues (he over-extended himself way too far as he was already doing the artwork for 2 other books at the time).
- Cap Wolf: I am not even kidding, they turned Captain America into a werewolf with Wolverine and had Cable hunting them. It was super cheese story telling at its best!
- The Killing Joke: Poor Barbara Gordon… Also, just read the comic, don’t watch the animated movie. Trust me on this.
- Secret Invasion: It wasn’t very good, but it had a few clever twists, and if nothing else it brought a few Marvel characters back who were presumed long dead in a story that was more plausible than most comic book “back from the dead” stories. Blackest Night for DC was honestly the same story, just re-skinned as a Green Lantern tale that brought a bunch people back from the dead using a similar conceit.
Bottomline: I know my superhero lore, especially from Marvel & DC books from the fifty year period between 1960 – 2010, because even if I didn’t own it, I still had access to a ton of other comics to read from friends, online resources, and the library (yes you can check out comics in trade paperback format from your local library). So what happened around 2010 that killed my interest in purchasing superhero comics? That’s what I’d like to talk about today.
2004 – 2013: Marvel & DC comics crossover event fatigue
If you read superhero comics today, no doubt you’ve read an issue tying into an event series. It’s hard not to get tangled into a crossover event one way or the other. Darkseid is always looking for the anti-life equation, Thanos needs to unite the infinity stones, and/or some other such extinction level event is coming to both the Marvel and DC comic book universes, apparently all the time. Frankly, it got exhausting to keep up with. For the modern day comic book reader who picked up reading comics from the early 2000’s, the idea of crossover events happening annually is a given: because they literally happen each year on both the Marvel and DC side. For the seasoned reader that had been reading from the 80’s or 90’s (or even before then!), annual crossover events are kind of jarring. It’s not that crossover events didn’t happen back in the day, but they were special events that happened every few years, not annually. Older crossover events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths were massive high stakes stories where characters died and the course of that specific comic book universe was significantly altered after the conclusion. Today, crossover events still try to alter the course of the comic universe with grandiose tales, but with the universe being noticeably altered each year it starts to become too much to keep up with. By the time you get used to the new paradigm, they force feed you another one without giving the previous one enough time to actually matter all that much at all. The solo titles suffer from this in significant ways, as the writers struggle to shoehorn their character into whatever ridiculous big crossover event is happening at the time. Think I’m kidding? Keep on reading bub!
Let’s run a timeline scenario from the pages of Marvel comics events of one decade spanning from 2004-2013 (Spoiler Warning!):
- 2004 – Avengers Dissassembled: Scarlet Witch turns on the team, Hawkeye dies, the Avengers disband, and Thor destroys Asgard.
- 2005 – House of M: Scarlet Witch eliminates nearly all mutant abilities, Hawkeye comes back from the dead, Magneto loses his mutant powers, Prof. X is missing, and Wolverine gets all his memories back.
- 2006 – Civil War: After a national incident the government votes to have powered individuals registered through the superhero registration act. This causes a civil war among the heroes, Goliath is killed, Thor is cloned, Spider-Man reveals his secret identity to the world, and Captain America dies.
- 2007 – World War Hulk: Hulk comes back to earth all pissed off and breaks a bunch of stuff, then Hulk beats up the X-Men (all of them), then he beats up the Avengers & Fantastic Four (all of them X2) and makes them his slave, he then turns Madison Square Garden into a gladiatorial arena, Hulk comes to his senses and lets Iron Man hit him with so much radiation that he falls unconscious and back to his Bruce Banner persona (presumably forever).
- 2008 – Secret Invasion: Half the Marvel heroes have secretly been shape shifting aliens (Skrulls) for years whilst their human counterparts have been held hostage, everyone betrays everyone, Wasp dies, SHIELD is dissolved, and Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) is placed in charge of a new protective agency named HAMMER.
- 2009 – Fall of the Hulks/Utopia: Norman Osborn creates a Dark Avengers and Dark X-Men teams (yes those are their real names, yes it is beyond stupid), Osborn has Professor X and has been torturing him, The X-Men are banished to Utopia, Deadpool joins the X-Men, a new super-villain organization named the Intelligencia has secretly been controlling the Marvel narrative for some time now (allegedly), Betty Ross and General Talbot are alive (both had been presumed dead for quite some time), in the end a bunch of regular and powered people get turned into Hulks, because yay more Hulks
- 2010 – Siege: Ares dies, Loki has been manipulating everything (because the Skrulls and the Intelligencia only thought they were pulling the strings… sigh), Sentry destroys Asgard (because Ragnarok and Thor destroying it within the previous decade were not enough) and makes it crash down to Earth, Loki dies, the heroes rally and overthrow Osborn and his Dark teams, Sentry dies, the superhero registration act is abolished, SHIELD is reinstated.
- 2011 – Fear Itself: Asgard has gone wonky, Bucky Barnes dies, Captain America’s shield gets broken (oh, did I forget to mention that he’s alive again), Tony Stark convinces the Asgardians to let him use their smithing equipment so that he can make the heroes “God” armor, Thor dies (for like the billionth time, seriously mate… git gud).
- 2012 – Avengers Vs X-Men: Cable pretty much single-handedly defeats the Avengers, Hope Summers becomes the Phoenix, X-Men and Avengers fight over her, the X-Men use Phoenix powers to become the Phoenix Five (I cannot make this crap up), Atlantis goes to war with Wakanda, X-Men and Avengers team up to fight Cyclops (who is in full douchebag mode) and Emma Frost, Professor X dies (again), Cyclops becomes the Dark Phoenix (D’oh!) and is ultimately defeated because Cyclops is a freaking retard.
- 2013 – Age of Ultron: Post apocolyptic, Ultron has destroyed nearly everything important, multiverse story (yay, I guess), Luke Cage dies, cyborg Tony Stark, a bunch of heroes die (don’t cry too hard, it doesn’t stick), time travel fixes everything and ruins it all at the same time, multiverses are colliding just in time to tee up another big event series for 2014…
(END SPOILER WARNING!)
Are you exhausted yet? But wait! There’s more! Keep in mind, all of these events happened while other major stories were playing out in individual comic titles. Spider-Man made a deal with the devil (literally) to dissolve his marriage to Mary Jane that would reinstate his secret identity and save his aunt May’s life. Bucky Barnes (Winter Soldier) became Captain America. Part of the X-Men moved to San Francisco as the team splintered into 2 very different factions. Tony Stark was the Secretary of Defense, dealt with Extremis, and also joined the Illuminati. General Ross became the Red Hulk, Rick Jones became A-Bomb (a bootleg blue Hulk), the Hulk had a son named Skaar while he was away from earth conquering a whole ‘nother planet because of the aforementioned Illuminati. The cosmic characters (Guardians of the Galaxy, Nova, Silver Surfer, etc.) were dealing with a cosmos wide annihilation event. The Fantastic Four were dealing with the apparent death of the Human Torch, Mr. Fantastic’s powers fading, and adding Spider-Man (while he was also an Avenger full time as well… on 2 different Avengers team) to their team full time as they re-branded their name to be the Future Foundation. I could keep going on and on, but I think you get the point. The whole Marvel universe got so heavily weighed down by all of this inordinately complex mythology and forced connectivity to all of these events and characters that they had no choice but to soft reboot their whole universe in 2015. If you think that is bad, at least it took Marvel Comics roughly over 50 years before they needed to reboot. DC Comics is such a hot mess that they reboot their universe about as often as they change their underwear. Seriously, DC has rebooted or massively retconned their universe or characters at least 9 times since the eighties, specifically in 1985, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1994, 2004, 2005, 2011, and 2015. For an exhaustive look at the many reboots of the DC universe, read this article from cbr.com which covers the aforementioned reboots plus ones from even before 1985 that I have intentionally skipped.
I know why crossovers happen annually. Everybody knows why, and it certainly isn’t because they are telling these amazing stories that absolutely must be told every year on the year exactly (which is not to say that some of these recent crossovers have been poorly written, it’s not that specifically, more than anything they are totally unnecessary). No, the reason for all of these crossovers and big events is far more predictable and disappointing: because there is a lot of money to be made. I’m not knocking the comic book companies for wanting to make a buck, truly I am not, but I am knocking them for being greedy little bloodsuckers while trying to do it. It’s one thing to sell the fans a 6 issue event mini-series, but it’s never just a 6 issue read, is it. No, if you want the whole story, you have to read all of the tie-in books as well. You see, Civil War may have only been 7 issues total, but when it was all said and done it took a grand total of 81 comic books to tell the whole tale. 81 FREAKING COMIC BOOKS! Here’s the checklist directly from Marvel, if you don’t believe me:
Now certainly, Marvel is not twisting your arm to buy these additional tie-in comics, but the fact that the event bleeds into so many titles is absolutely ridiculous. Marvel’s Civil War isn’t the only offender of this magnitude, as their World War Hulk went 51 issues, Axis needed 49 funny books to tell, and Secret Invasion went a whopping 98 issues long! DC Comics is just as bad, with the Blackest Night event taking 73 total books, Final Crisis needed 57 books (which doesn’t include the additional 20 books needed to tell the Batman R.I.P. story that is tied to the core Final Crisis series), 52 took (you guessed it!) 52 books to tell, and Flashpoint took 61 issues to tell it’s sprawling time travel tale.
It all got just too much for me want to keep up with! I couldn’t handle it anymore. Aslo, it was sloppy writing on the part of Marvel and DC, because everything became fractured and disjointed. While they were busy trying to make it all connected, they ultimately just fractured their own continuity to the point of nearly all their books felt disconnected from anything but the events. The financial drain of these events was bad enough, but add to that the fact that all of these events made the core books that held the respective universes together worse was unforgivable. Spider-Man, Iron Man, all of the X-Men line of books, Fantastic Four, Black Panther, and more all took significant narrative quality dives because they were no longer able to just tell contained stories that impacted the core character, they had to tell stories that fed into this larger connected comic book world money making machine. Gone are the days that an Iron Man tale like “Demon in a Bottle”, or a Spider-Man story like “Kraven’s Last Hunt” would break out and become an instant classic. And in the overall scheme of things, that’s really my beef with superhero comics circa 2016. Everyone is still in full event mode and it has sucked the fun out of the industry and the characters for me.
I still try to read superhero comic books occasionally, like the attempt I made this week via Marvel Unlimited. I even tried reading the newest take on Spider-Man, and frankly was wildly unimpressed. (SPOILER WARNING: I WILL BE DISCUSSING CURRENT EVENTS FROM THE CURRENT AMAZING SPIDER-MAN SERIES!) The new paradigm for Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) is that he is a well-to-do baron of industry that owns his own high profile tech firm that altruistically gives tech and services to people for free (or super cheep), and supplies weapons and gadgets to SHIELD. If this sounds a lot like he’s become Tony Stark, then you would be thinking in the right direction. In fact, the new book goes so far as to call Parker “the poor man’s Tony Stark”. I. Kid. You. Not. On top of that, Parker bankrolls someone (specifically Prowler) to be “Spider-Man” so that the public will not suspect that the now very public figure Peter Parker is still in fact Spider-Man. When Peter is Spider-Man, he no longer protects New York City on a street level anymore, he hops on a sweet futuristic ride with SHIELD and goes to outer space, deep in the ocean, or to some exotic country to fight his newest round of ne’er-do-well rogues. Essentially, they have taken every part of what made Spider-Man a hero for the common person, and Peter Parker relatable to the majority of us that are not wealthy, and completely thrown them away. The character that you read about may have Spider-Man in the title of his book, but that’s not Spider-Man. The day that Spider-Man becomes discount Batman is the day that I tap out – which is apparently today. (END SPOILER WARNING!)
Much like my relationship with anime, I have to take breaks from superhero comics. Also, sometimes I just have to walk away and not look back (I’m looking at you X-Men). When it comes to the idea of superhero books returning to a form that is engaging and well made, I am like Fox Mulder: I want to believe that it will happen. Unfortunately, unless there is a major shift in the way that Marvel and DC structure the overall stories in their respective universes to be more inclusive and less dependent on events and reboots, well then I just don’t see it changing for the better any time soon.
So what’s a fan boy/girl to do? If you find yourself in the same spot that I am in, where you want to read comics, but you are done with Marvel/DC for now, allow me to make a few suggestions:
- Archie Comics: I know, it’s the red headed kid who’s always in trouble and is eternally struggling to pick between Betty and Veronica, but listen up: Archie Comics is putting out some of the best books in print right now. The New Riverdale line (Archie, Jughead, Betty & Veronica) and Afterlife with Archie are amazing reads, especially for adults. I cannot recommend the current crop of Archie books enough. Seriously, check them out! Website: archiecomics.com
- Go Indie! There are a veritable cornucopia of hidden gems laced all throughout the comic publishing world. If you want a pure sexy comedy that plays out like a premium cable TV series intended for adults, check out “Menage a 3” published by Pixie Trix Comics. “Die Kitty Die” is a fantastic campy romp from members of the Archie Comics creative team, and it is terrific book printed by Astro Comix. One of My personal favorites is the Viper Comics published “The Middleman”, an outrageously fun take on comics book superheroes and the super-spies of the 60’s and 70’s, with a contemporary twist. These recommendations are the tip of the iceberg! There are thousands of great indie comics out there in just about any genre you can think of. Take a walk off the beaten path and read an indie comic book today!
- Valiant Comics: In the late 80’s, ex-Editor in Chief for Marvel, Jim Shooter started up an independent comic company named Valiant. They came out with a wide variety of books that gained quite a bit of popularity. Unfortunately, they fell apart fairly quickly thereafter. In 2012, Valiant came back with a streamlined approach that brought back many of their more popular characters in well written and expertly crafted stories. 4 years later they are still churning out top notch hero and sci-fi based comic books. Definitely check them out. Website: valiantentertainment.com
- IDW: making a name for themselves by publishing high profile licensed books based on Transformers and G.I. Joe, IDW has expanded over the years to include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ROM Space Knight, Ghostbusters, Star Trek, the X-Files, My Little Pony and a ton more. On top of that they publish a lot of rad old school style horror comics and Disney comics. There is a little something for every type of reader with all of the different books that IDW puts out. Website: idwpublising.com
- Movies/TV: Just watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to get your superhero fix. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is an excellent TV series as well. Avoid the CW superhero shows, they are mostly terrible. Deadpool and some of the X-Men movies were good. Richard Donner’s Superman was quite excellent. The first Sin City film was a wonderful comics-to-film adaption. Some of the Batman movies have been OK, although the animated theatrical release Mask of the Phantasm is by and far the best Batman film ever made. The first 2 Blade movies are a lot of fun. Spider-Man 2 is nearly perfect, as was the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series. Smallville was nowhere near perfect, but Stockholm Syndrome set in for me over the years, and it actually gets to be a lot of fun in the last 3 seasons. The DC animated films have mostly been entertaining, with a few standouts such as “Crisis on Two Earths” and “Justice League the New Frontier”. The classic Batman and Justice League animated series are great as well. Bottom line: you have a lot of excellent (and some only marginally passable) options for movie and TV series based on comic books.
Regardless of how you get your comic book kicks, I highly recommend branching out from the standard Marvel and DC books. There is a ton of great smaller publishers and independent books out there, both old and new – check them out! It’s what I have been doing as of late, and what I will continue to do until Marvel and/or DC can get their respective universes in order and start telling good stories again.