Thursday, April 14, 2011
Random Reflections: What Was Wrong Then Is Still Wrong Now
This post stands to cap off a cranky week for me here at Chasing Amazing, so let me start by stating what should be the obvious: collecting comic books has always brought me joy. This joy goes beyond the artwork on the cover, the witty banter and the over-the-top plots and powers of heroes and super villains. For me, there's something special about every time a new issue comes in the mail. I read through it, admire it, and then place it in a protective bag, slide a pice of cardboard behind it, and tape it up for preservation. When I receive an older issue, I love the smell of the yellowing paper. If there's a crease or a chip on the cover, I love trying to imagine how it got there. Was it rolled up in someone's attic? Did some 7-year-old in the 1960s or 70s buy this issue when it first came out on the newsstand and neglect it? These are the joys of collecting.
What doesn't bring me joy is the comic book "industry." Just that word -- industry -- makes me cringe. My definition of the industry (based on nothing by wild assumptions and speculations) is the group of people who are there to determine the best way to make money off of comic books.
Granted, I don't expect anyone who's involved in a commercial enterprise to do it just to appease idealistic folks like me who seem to value artwork and the smell of paper over the nickels and dimes that are out there to be made. But I've always held firm that while I "collect" Amazing Spider-Man comics, I'm probably by definition an enthusiast. Something that I get asked quite often by people when they hear about my goal of collecting every issue of ASM is, "what are you going to do once you get them all? Sell it?" No. When I have them all, I will have them all, and my collection will just continue to grow as long as Marvel continues to pump out Amazing Spider-Man comics, or until the "industry" does something so abhorrent that I can't reconcile myself to stick with it any longer.
An example of something that extreme is what Marvel is attempting to pull off with the June issue of Ultimate Spider-Man -- a separate series that was released more than 10 years ago that's a "reimagining" of the Spider-Man universe. I dabbled with the idea of collecting this series a few times over the past 5 or 6 years, usually getting through a year or two of a subscription before losing interest. The stories are clearly geared towards teenagers and feature a more angsty Peter Parker and slicker, more powerful versions of Spdiey's classic villains. There's just a little too much polish on Ultimate Spider-Man for my liking.
But more power to Marvel and those who read Ultimate Spider-Man. If that's the Spidey/Peter you know and love, don't let a grouch like me stop you. But for their 160th issue, Marvel is revisiting a bad place -- a place that almost drove me out of comic books back when I was still a teenager. For starters, Ultimate Spider-Man #160 is being advertised as the "death of Spider-Man." Second, this "landmark" issue is being issued in two different "collectible" blue and red polybags and will only be distributed to comic book dealers directly -- no newsstands.
You see, this is where the "industry" rears its ugly head. In a couple of different posts on here, I've referred to the comic book boom of the early 1990s, where, to give you the abridged version, publishers flooded the marketplace with different "collectible" issues of their main series, drawing casual buyers into comics who were hoping to flip these "special" books for a quick buck. But as supply and demand economics dictate, there were so many of these "collectible" issues out there, they were rendered worthless. But beyond the value of the comics themselves, this boom and bust period did serious damage to publishers, including Marvel who filed for bankruptcy. Because once the casual fans discovered they couldn't make money reselling comics, they left the industry in droves, nearly destroying it.
The quintessential comic book boom moment that I still remember clearly is the "Death of Superman" comic released by DC in the early 90s. Superman is perhaps the oldest ongoing superhero out there and after 60-plus years of existence, someone at DC thought it would be a good idea to "kill" him. The move worked in the short-term. The "death" of Superman generated national headlines on television and in newspapers. The issues was released in a special black polybag with the iconic Superman "S" dripping with blood. People went absolutely bonkers for this issue, buying out comic book shops, newsstands, everywhere within hours of the book's release. People thought they were investing in an iconic pop culture moment -- the equivalent of getting a first press of a Beatles record before Ed Sullivan, or the first printing of Harry Potter before the phenomena. And DC and the comic book industry relished in the short-term profits that brought millions of new buyers to comics.
But then a funny thing happened. DC brought Superman back, because honestly, how in the world would they be able to survive the long-term without their flagship character? You can't kill the golden goose and still expect gold eggs in 10 years. And when Superman was brought back to life, it disappointed those millions of casual fans who bought that comic book because he was "dead." Apparently no one told these people that in comic book-world heroes and villains have more lives than Soap Opera characters.
And when I go on to eBay today, I can find an old copy of that book for $5. Good luck buying a house with the profits you can make on that.
My own personal dissatisfaction with the industry as it related to Spider-Man comes during the nefarious "clone saga." This storyline is pretty awful, so I'm going to keep it brief: Peter Parker was apparently cloned at one point and after being in hiding, his clone reemerged. The two took a DNA test and then determined that Peter was actually the clone and the clone was Peter. Except later on, it was all a plot perpetrated by Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin, a character who had been "killed" hundreds of issues earlier and unlike Superman, actually seemed quite dead for the better part of two decades.
While this storyline is stupid enough to chase anyone away, what ticked me off as a Spider-Man enthusiast was how Marvel milked this storyline for every last cent. At that point, Spider-Man had a number of spinoff series like Web of Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man and just Spider-Man, and to get the full resolution of who was the "real" Spider-Man, I had to buy every single one of these series to keep reading. And then when they finally made the big reveal, Amazing Spider-Man actually went on a brief hiatus as Marvel introduced another spinoff series based on the clone. My patience was tested too much, and rather than wait out the hiatus, I just stopped buying new comics altogether, and didn't pick it up again until nearly 100 issues later when even Marvel was openly admitting what a disaster the whole saga was.
So, now seeing what's in store for Ultimate Spider-Man, I just don't quite get why Marvel is rehashing these bad memories. Hasn't pretty much everyone in the industry admitted that mistakes were made in the 1990s? And by making the announcement this week for a comic that's not coming out until the end of June, it looks like Marvel is hoping to generate a steady stream of buzz here. Personally, I feel like the boom and bust era has dragged down comic books far enough that the kind of mainstream attention the death of Superman generated will never be achieved again. And I suspect Marvel knows this, but then why sell the thing in two different colored polybags? And to distribute them only to dealers? The cynic in me thinks dealers are just going to hoard these issues, sell them at a mark-up and inevitably pit one polybagged issue against the other so one becomes the industry-approved "desired" comic.
And maybe I'm totally wrong here. But the fact that I have even an iota of skepticism makes my brow furrow. That's the problem here, just when I'm ready to sit down and celebrate the joy and memories of my collection, the ugliness of the "industry" comes back with a vengeance and reminds me that the purity that I value in comics is not always universally heralded. And though I could choose to look at the Amazing Spider-Man series with red and blue-colored glasses, no comic book or superhero is immune to when someone involved in the "industry" decides its time for a new image or for a "fresh start" with a series. It's all so very precarious.