Saturday, April 13, 2013

How comic-book universes can become too "coordinated"

People who don't read comic-books at all have very little appreciation for how complicated the "continuity" of a comic-book universe can be.  For example, one day at lunch I was trying to explain to a co-worker, who has never read a comic-book in her life nor even watched most superhero movies, what the "New 52" is in the +DC Comics universe.  As I described some of the difficulties and inconsistencies in the continuity, she stopped me and said, "Wait a minute.  You're telling me that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern... all these characters co-exist in the same universe?"

"Yes," I responded. "That's why they can all be on the Justice League.  And then on top of that there are the Teen Titans, and the Birds of Prey, and the Legion of Superheroes. It's all part of one continuity."

"Well, then that's the problem," she answered. "Trying to make them all co-exist would obviously lead to trouble."

Now, the typical comic fan's knee-jerk reaction to this might be to laugh at her, since after all, these characters have co-existed in the same universe for decades.  However, it struck me then, and still does today, that she had a good point.  The reason there are so many continuity problems in both +DC Comics and +Marvel Entertainment universes is that there are so many titles, following so many characters, all happening at the same time, that these many threads are impossible to coordinate into a logical and coherent whole.

However, the really severe continuity problems bubbling up to the surface every month in title after title are relatively new to the medium (the last couple of decades).  Early on, even though the overall continuity may have been messier if you tried to, say, make a flow chart of it (with all the infinite DC Universes), the average reader could ignore most of the chaos while following a given series, because each series was relatively independent.  Writers and artists answered to the editors of individual titles, but those titles could go wherever the creative team and editor wanted them to.  There was very little "top down" control of the universes, and they were not all that well coordinated (other than practical concerns, such as making sure that the same villain wasn't appearing at the same time in multiple books).  To facilitate this, artificial "barriers" were constructed from book to book. For instance, the major characters tended to operate in their own unique city -- Batman and Robin worked out of Gotham City; Superman worked out of Metropolis; Supergirl worked out of Chicago.

Back before the mid-80s, universe-wide crossovers simply didn't occur (Marvel's Secret Wars limited series was the first one, followed the next year by DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths).  Absent that, or the limited "guest star" appearances from time to time, because they took place in different locales, each comic-book operated sort of in its own miniature "universe." The hero had his or her own "rogues' gallery" of rotating enemies, the series had its own supporting cast, and so forth.  This setup caused the overall universe to be only loosely connected (Supergirl and Batman theoretically took place on the same planet at the same time, but one almost never saw any of the characters from one book appear in the other).  As a result, creative teams had great autonomy and freedom. The focus of all stories and content in those days revolved around the unit of the series.

Today, things are very different.  Since the 1980s, comics publishers have become obsessed with producing crossovers. DC, in particular, seems to have fallen victim to the mentality of having a crossover just to have a crossover.  With the New 52, for example, there seems to have been a company-wide mandate that each group or "family" of books would have a crossover during the post-zero-month issues (#13-17 in most cases, or thereabouts).  For example, the Superman Family of books had H'el on Earth (Supergirl, Superboy, and Superman 14-17 plus additional bits pre and post).  The Bat-Family of books had the Death of the Family Crossover (roughly issues 14-17 of most books in the family).  The "Justice League" family had a sort-of crossover (Throne of Atlantis, JL and Aquaman 15-17).  Other crossovers at the time included Swamp Thing/Animal Man, and the Green Lantern family, among others.

To get all these crossovers to happen on the same months, the front office (the editors and assistant editors and higher-ups like Dan Didio and Jim Lee) had to issue a company-wide fiat that all the post-zero issues will be crossovers.  Indeed, they also issued a company-wide mandate that all the 13th issues of New 52, in every single series, would be issue 0 origin stories, and that every issue 0 would have some "shocking" piece that would lead into the second year.

Here is the problem with this kind of rigid coordination: it is simply not possible that dozens of different series about dozens of different characters, with creative teams that write stories at different paces, and thematic material that runs at different speeds, could all be in the right place for a zero issue or a crossover all at the same time.  Stories take different amounts of time to develop because characters and hero teams are unique, and storytellers delve into character backgrounds unequally.  It's simply not the case that the pace of a Batman storyline, which usually involves lots of detective work and crime solving, and the pace of a Superman storyline, which may involve flying into outer space facing universal threats, would be even remotely similar.  These stories should (no -- must) take place at different speeds covering a different number of issues by their very nature.

By forcing crossovers to happen all on the same month in every title, DC's front office is ensuring that the crossover story will not fit well into many, perhaps even most, of the participating titles.  They are trying to force a highly rigid and inflexible coordinated structure onto what ought to be an inherently organic, dynamic process (the creativity of many different teams each doing its own thing).  Thus, DC and Marvel have become, quite literally, too coordinated.

A great example of how the over-coordination does not work is the companies' foolhardy tradition of producing a "universe spanning" crossover every summer.  By forcing most of their titles to participate in one of these 3-month affairs each year, they are implicitly forcing what I call a "9+3" structure on every title in the line -- 9 months of series stories, then 3 months of crossover, then 9 months of series, then 3 of crossover.  The problem is that stories don't always take the same number of issues to develop.  Some stories may take four issues. Others may take eleven.  Because of the rigid structure of these highly coordinated universes, however, the writers end up having to squeeze or stretch stories to fit a given number of issues, rather than just letting the stories resolve of their own momentum.

The over-coordination of comics universes is, I think, a huge mistake.  Instead of a story taking "as long as it needs to take," we have editors forcing creative teams to wrap things up this month so the crossover can happen next month, or telling them to stretch the story out for two more issues because there's a crossover coming and there's no point starting another arc now when it will just get interrupted.

Now, both +DC Comics and +Marvel Entertainment would argue that crossovers increase sales.  But I think that argument rests on faulty assumptions.  For instance, to what are they comparing the sales? Regular sales rely on non-crossover story arcs that are being artificially squeezed and stretched into a rigid, coordinated structure that is dictated by the timing of crossovers.  I argue here that this very coordination is making today's story arcs dramatically inferior to the story arcs of the pre-crossover-crazed era.  I maintain, in other words, that sales are down across the line compared to years ago because the storylines in each series today are inferior to the stories of the past. And the storylines are inferior because of the interference of the crossovers.  Thus, crossovers are needed to boost sales that are lagging because the crossovers are cramping the styles of creative teams and making the storylines of each series inferior in the first place.

I will always believe that quality sells, and great stories will sell comic-books.  If the companies are producing quality, such as the Great Darkness Saga, or the Dark Phoenix Saga, then no sales gimmicks (which all a crossover amounts to) are needed.  The only reason crossovers are needed now is because the quality isn't there. And I argue that the iron-clad coordination companies need to run crossovers in the first place, is making it impossible for creative teams to produce good content.

If companies are ever going to get back to selling hundreds of thousands, instead of tens of thousands, of copies per title, the only way to do it is with quality, not sales gimmicks.  It's time for DC and Marvel to realize that the "crossover every year" model does not work, and that their sales are declining in part because of that model.  Yes, it's a sales gimmick, so yes, participating series see a small, temporary sales boost during the crossover.  But the series are hurt, not helped, in the long run.  

That's why if you look at comichron's sales figures through March, you'll see that H'el on Earth did not boost sales in the Superman Family.  For the four months before that crossover, Superman sold an average of 55,000 issues per month.  During the crossover, it sold an average of 51,000 per month (a drop in sales during the crossover!).   Issue 18 (the first post-crossover story) sold 48,000.    Superboy had fallen to 25,000 copies per month right before the crossover, and its sales were (slightly) boosted to 27,300 copies per issue of the crossover. However, sales went right back down again post-H'el, to 24,455 (issue 18).

And the story is not true just for H'el on Earth.  Looking at Death of the Family, the Bat-family crossover earlier this year, we see a similar pattern.  It's a little less "clean" because, for example, Detective Comics only participated in this story with issues 15-16, whereas Catwoman crossed into it in issues 13-14.  The pattern, however, is clear for every title as well as across the family line.  Batman averaged about 130,000 copies per month before the crossover, about 151,000 during, and dropped back down to 137,00 after it (even considering that the "post" issue was a crossover into the death of Robin).  Batgirl averaged 48,000 copies per month before the crossover, 68,000 during, and is back to 51,000 after.  Detective Comics averaged 75,000 copies per month before the crossover, and soared to 99,000 per month during it, but two months later has crashed back down to 76,000 per month.  Total sales across the family averaged 421,000 before the crossover, and 482,000 during it (showing that yes, the crossover itself does boost sales in the short term), but has now dropped to 416,000 total for the most recent month -- slightly worse than the pre-crossover numbers.

These numbers suggest that, although crossovers do boost sales for the short term, they do nothing for sales in the long term, and by my argument, they are actually hurting sales long term.  Because the crossovers interrupt, screw with, and ultimately worsen the main storylines of the individual series, readers get frustrated and give up little by little, month by month.  The short-term sales boost this month, this spring, from a big crossover is paid for in spades during the months down the road, as readership declines due to the overall lack of quality that is caused by forcing story-arc rigidity onto creative teams.

It's time comic book companies stopped looking at the short run, and started thinking long term. And in the long run, it is much better to give creative teams freedom than to restrict them by forcing universe-spanning crossovers onto every series every single year.  DC and Marvel need to go back to having the series be the unit of publication, rather than the crossover.  That's the only way we're going to get the quality to go back up in our favorite titles.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. I'm glad to see your argument in the "TPB" format!