Saturday, April 6, 2013

The death of the 'series' concept

As I looked over a picture of the upcoming "Trinity War" mega-crossover in DC, and pondered the idea of many books I'm reading having yet another crossover after having already been through one this year, a thought came to me: the traditional concept of the comic-book series is dead, at least in +DC Comics  and +Marvel Entertainment .  Truly, with very few exceptions, there is no such thing, anymore, as a comic-book series.

This may sound crazy to you, because series nominally do still exist.  They have names, editors, creative teams, logos, sequential numbering, and everything, just like they always did.  And yet, my claim today is, that these are series only in name, and not in actual fact.

First of all, let's get our definitions straight. What do I mean by a "series" - how do I define it?  I define a comic-book series, to paraphrase the definition of a TV series on, as an ongoing, regularly published comic-book title with three traits:

  1. it has the same cast of characters
  2. it has a continuing story that gradually progresses from issue to issue; and 
  3. it has a relatively stable creative team.  

Every single comic-book series when I was growing up met this definition.

The reason I argue that hardly any "series" meet this definition today is that almost none of them meet all three criteria, and many only meet the very first.  That is, most series do have a consistent cast of characters -- the Batgirl series is pretty much about Batgirl, and a few of her friends/family.  But for many titles, that trait (consistent characters) is the only one they can claim.  Many series have had rapidly changing creative teams (Superman had three different teams in 13 issues), although some, like Batgirl, have had a relatively stable team.

But the second criterion is where the "series" of today no longer make the cut. They lack a coherent, continuing story that gradually progresses from issue to issue.  And the reason why they lack a continuing story is the insistence by +DC Comics and +Marvel Entertainment to have multi-title crossovers every few months.  These crossovers are not self-contained, but spill over into every title, often for many months, and can de-rail or even utterly destroy the thread of continuity in the individual title.

Don't get me wrong: I like a good crossover now and then.  But the comic-book companies do it entirely too much these days.  To see what I mean, let's use the New 52 Batgirl series (one of my favorites, thanks to the scripting of Gail Simone) as an example.  To date, 19 issues (if we include #0) of this title have been released. Out of those 19 issues, 9 (or nearly half) have been part of crossovers, or had their stories strongly impacted by crossovers.  Issue 9 was a "Night of the Owls" Bat-family crossover. Issue 11 was a Knightfall Bat-family crossover, and issue 12 was the aftermath of Knightfall.  Issues 13-16 were Batgirl's part in the "Death of the Family" crossover, and issue 17 was the aftermath of DOF.  Issue 18 was part of the "Requiem" for the death of Robin.  In all, as I say, this is nearly half (47%) of all Batgirl issues to date -- meaning that only half of the issues can possibly be part of "a continuing story that gradually progresses from issue to issue."

And now, DC is getting ready to publish the Trinity War, which will probably consume most of the summer, which means even more issues will be crossover tie-ins rather than stories specifically about Batgirl.

Therefore, the concept of the comic-book series has altered.  No longer do we have a continuing story about the same set of characters by a relatively stable creative team.  What we have instead can be thought of as a container of sorts.... the Batgirl, Batman, and Nightwing comics are a delivery system, a vehicle by which crossovers can be brought to the reader.  This seems to be the main purpose for which comics exist.  Telling their own story month in, month out, about a small set of characters, no longer seems to be the job of these titles.  Instead, the series is used by the comic company to set up and portray crossovers.  All titles revolve now, not around their characters, but around whatever crossover is going on at the time (because there's always another one getting ready to come out, another one for which the title has to "prep").

There are happily some exceptions to the rule.  Wonder Woman, so far, has remained a series despite what the rest of the DC Universe is doing.  And the smaller companies, like Image and Dynamite, seem perfectly happy to produce series -- often completely stand-alone series that have nothing to do with the rest of their "universe."  But these are the exceptions, and they are few and far between.  By far the bulk of comic-books are simply vehicles whose purpose is to deliver crossover content to the reader.

The other readers out there must like this new formula, the "title as a crossover venue" approach, because otherwise I imagine the companies wouldn't do it.  I guess if you don't care all that much about the actual characters, the incessant crossing over would be fine.  But for those of us who become attached to, and grow to love and enjoy reading about, specific characters like Batgirl, having her series constantly be interrupted by stories that really have nothing directly (or sometimes even indirectly) to do with her is frustrating in the extreme.

If you're a fan of the true series concept, there really is no remedy at this point, unfortunately.  The bigger companies long ago embraced the "crossover after crossover" model of marketing. It's what they do now.  The only option is to go for the titles produced by smaller companies. And I'm starting to do just that.

Years ago, I gave up comic-books in part because of this very issue -- because each series I was collecting kept being dragged into one crossover after another, and the storyline of each title suffered as a result.  I'm obviously sad, but certainly not surprised, to see this pattern has not changed for +DC Comics or +Marvel Entertainment, but I think the solution isn't to give up comics. Rather, it's to find some titles produced by independent companies, or titles the big companies are willing to allow to stand alone, and follow those.  Dynamite's Red Sonja series is an excellent example of the former, and Wonder Woman (so far) of the latter.

As for Trinity War.... like most mega-crossovers since probably the late 1980s (when they first started doing them), I will do my best to ignore it. If there are special issues or a limited series called "Trinity War," I will probably not buy them.  When the TW issues of those titles I collect come out, I will buy them, read them, accept that I will be confused since I am only reading a tiny portion of the story, bag them, probably never read them again, and wait until it's over.  And if it lasts long enough, some of my pull list titles will probably get dropped, and replaced by independent titles.


  1. I agree with most of your points. I wonder if you can expound on criteria no. 3, stable creative teams. The way I see it, good creative teams will be able to produce character-centered story lines that will be able to reveal more of each character or a new way of looking at him/her with each issue. Hopefully then, comic books wouldn't have to rely too much on crossovers to boost readership. And I guess that seems to be the distasteful part about some crossovers. They appear to be motivated more about selling an event than selling a story.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I would actually go a little beyond what you have said, which is that crossovers are about selling an event rather than *telling* a story.

    I'm not sure what you want me to expound about in terms of stable creative teams. My argument is that the series, as I knew it years ago, was heavy on the within-title continuity (what happened from issue to issue), and that this coherence is what makes a series actually *be* a series. Otherwise it's just a bunch of disconnected stories about the same character. Keeping the creative team the same helps add to that stability, that continuity. Every time a new team comes on, the look, feel, and story of the book changes. Just take a look at the first 3 "story arcs" of the New 52 Superman for a great example of what I mean. That series is NOT a series... it's a collection of TPBs put out in monthly form that just so happen to be about Superman (NONE of the other elements, including supporting cast behavior/personality, are the same from arc to arc). That's why I say you need a stable creative team to have a true series.