January 16th, 2011 (09:59 pm)
current location: United States, Illinois, Wheaton
current mood: calm
I watch this video series called The Big Picture where he talks about geek culture. He also reviews genre movies. We're about the same age and have some similar tastes so I'm more inclined to listen to him. He also doesn't talk down to people when compared to other critics and doesn't act like watching "Citizen Kane" or whatever should be mandatory. Anyway a line he frequently uses when talking about superheroes is "Comics are weird!!" with an echo effect. I've thought about it and he's right. Comics are weird and they suffer from some inherent problems with no easy solutions that will one day doom them. Now none of these are in any particular order or anything.
The first problem I see is that the typical comic has 12 issues and maybe an annual. Now a particular story arc in a comic book is about 3-4 issues so you have 4-3 story arcs in a year plus one in the annual which is either self contained or the climax to whatever story arc the comic is doing at the time. So we have 4 stories a year. One story has a new villain, two stories have recurring villains, and one story has to do with the characters themselves (especially if the comic has multiple protagonists). It's so long between issues that you loose momentum and not all story arcs are interesting or good. So subscribing to a comic is a commitment and considering the price of comics, an expensive commitment (well expensive to their target audience). When I was collecting them I would spend $30 a week or so and that was when they were cheaper!
The second problem is a bit of a paradox. Most comics take place in a richly populated setting with many interesting characters. So to know what's going on requires reading a lot of back issues that intimidates new readers. That really is a pity since most TV shows don't have that large of a cast and don't do crossovers.
The third, is related to the first. Since comics only do come out once a month, it can take years to get a good, solid mythology going. During that time there will be changes in writers, artists, etc. Each one will want to put their own thumbprint on the comic. Maybe one writer will want to change a villain's personality or powers or kill him off. Then some other writer will do something else with that same villain. So eventually you're going to get continuity problems. The more comics you have and the longer they've been around, the more of these continuity problems you're going to have. This confuses fans and even insults them.
On the heels of continuity problems, you have time itself. Superman is from 1938. Spider-man got his powers as a teenager in 1962. All the classic heroes should be retired, old, or dead by now but they look about the same age they did when they started. We see their origins, costumes, villains, gadgets, etc and laugh at how silly they are in light of today's technology and culture. They can't move with the times because if they try, you have the continuity problems. Most comics just ignore that the same way the old Transformers cartoon dealt with scale. They try to stay current but with only 12 issues a year and a huge cast it's impractical. I remember an issue of Iron Man (or War Machine) where one of the female characters comes out as a lesbian. Back then it was a big deal. Today it's a big so what.
Now for solutions. The solutions are going to be tough. They're going to hurt. They might not even work. The first thing you have to do is reset the world. DC tried this a few times and always changed their minds. Characters and events from before Infinite Crisis or whatever reappeared because the fans wanted them. Comics are a business and businesses need to listen to their customers. I know that. But this is one of those rare times the customer needs to grin and bear it.
Now when you reset the setting, not everyone has to start from the beginning. You can have Superman be considered the ultimate hero from issue #1 while at the same time Hal Jordon gets his Green Lantern ring. What's important is that you're tracking time as of this moment. Give each story arc a start and stop date in your world so you don't have different writers stumbling over each other. If Batman caught The Disemboweler on July 19th 2011, show him in prison when Green Arrow needs him to answer some questions a month later. Yes, this will mean it will be months between story arcs, but that doesn't mean you can't have flashback issues or have the clock run slowly (just as long as it runs the same speed for everyone). Say you started the clock at Jan 1st, 2011. It could be 2015 in the real world but still be mid 2012 in the comic world.
Of course if you're slowing down time, eventually the setting will become outdated. They'll be 10 or 15 years behind continuing along at a snail's pace. So you have to reset things again. But that's OK because it will give new readers the perfect spot to jump on. You can try something different and for some minor characters keep them the same, just advance their history X years. I wouldn't be surprised if this was already being covertly done but being covert is the problem. Spell it out. Put up a sign that reads "OK, new continuity now. Everything you thought you knew before may not be valid. Don't assume anything!"
Now the question is, will this work? For that I point to the Champions RPG setting. They have come out with new edition about every 10 years. They do exactly what I suggested they do with each edition. The characters get re-envisioned, continuity is reset, the clock starts ticking, etc.
They even manage to develop the characters some from the previous edition. For example, in 4th edition the heroes Defender and Solitaire had an attraction for each other. In 5th Witchcraft (which was Solitaire remade) and Defender actually started a romantic relationship near the end. Now in the beginning of 6th, we see them having a romantic dinner together. Another example is Dr.Destroyer, the setting's biggest bad-ass. His history has largely stayed the same but in each edition he kept getting more powerful and had new powered armor. And in the books, they integrate that into his past. My favorite is what they did with the villain group Deathstroke. They were introduced in 3rd edition. In 4th they hired a consultant who gave them new uniforms and added a new member while keeping their history from 3rd. (That history included a bit about how a Boy Scout troop sneaked into their secret base and defeated them with their own defenses.) In 5th they still kept their history and continued it using another 4th edition villain and wiped out all but the two original members of the team. The survivors were featured in the book describing the setting's prison for supervillains as inmates.
So they were able to both update the setting while still keeping a link to the past. Comics have to do it too in order to survive. Consider the movies. The Batman, Spider-man, Iron Man, etc did pretty well and were well received because they were able to mix the old and the new while cutting away at what didn't work. Comics just keep everything like a packrat and that's not going to work for much longer.