You may have noticed I’ve been on a superhero movie kick lately. My last four reviews are all, in one form or another, superhero-based films, as is the next. I’ll be deliberately taking a break from them for a bit to put some variety back into the blog and my viewing schedule, but it should come as no surprise to any regular readers that I’m a fan of the genre. And I have been for most of my life.
I grew up watching Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and various incarnations of Super Friends among my other Saturday morning cartoons. I couldn’t buy comic books — no allowance — but the local library had a few collections available. I remember hardbound origin stories of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man, and at least one Superman omnibus. And of course lots of Asterix. When I became an adult, I got into the miniatures game Heroclix, and this led to me getting into reading comics regularly. But a few years ago, I quit. I’m still a fan of all of the characters, I still love the superhero genre. But it’s unlikely I’ll ever return to reading comics regularly again.
The money, obviously, is a large part of it. Comic books, like anything else, have gone up in price over the decades. I think when I was kid they were around 75 cents. When I collected them as an adult, they cost $3 each. $3 seems a little high to treat something as disposable, at least in the slightly neurotic mindset of the typical comic book buyer, so you then buy plastic bags and cardboard stiffeners to prevent them from being easily damaged. If you picked up a few titles per week, the total cost could add up extremely quickly. And don’t imagine for a second that this in any way represents an investment; while vintage comics can sometimes go for a lot of money if they’re the first appearance of some major character, most modern comics don’t hold their value. You’d be lucky to get one dollar back out of your three. They’re also expensive — or perhaps I should say expansive — in a non-financial sense as well; just as the cost adds up quickly, so does the amount of space they take up. A serious collector might find themselves using up a “long box” — about three feet — in the span of a year.
But it’s not just the costs involved. A couple of months back, Marvel and Comixology had a promotion where they gave away over 700 digital copies of #1 issues of different Marvel titles — ranging from the major ones to the obscure, long-running titles and one-shots. I signed up, I took part in the giveaway, I got my 700 free “purchases” added to my account. These were as free as free could be. They cost me no money to obtain, they take up no space in my home. They’re hosted online, so they don’t even take up any space on my hard drive. And I haven’t actually gotten around to reading a one of them yet. Somehow, I just always find something else I’d rather be doing.
I’m sure I’ll turn my eyes to some of them eventually, but my disinterest — which would have surprised me half a decade ago — has its foundations in the directions the medium has gone over the years. Part of it is simply that in many of these cases, there wouldn’t be much point to me reading them, even if the title sounded interesting. Stories that are told in a single issue are rare nowadays; most stories are written with the omnibus in mind, and span five or six issues. If you want a complete story, you’re looking at fifteen to eighteen dollars if in physical copies; I haven’t checked Comixology’s prices, but there’s no doubt this factored heavily into their planning for the promotion. The idea is to get you interested in the story so you’ll buy the rest of it. It’s not a heinous plan or anything; it’s still quite generous, assuming you’re reasonably interested in the stories. But somehow, despite that being the setup when I started collecting as an adult, it no longer appeals to me. I might read series of books that don’t tell everything in one go, but if I have to wait and/or pay extra for the next installment, I want that first installment to have some serious meat to it. One sixth — or one twelfth, even — of a comic book story usually isn’t all that satisfying. We’re only talking about 20 pages of content, after all.
One might suppose I could simply go buy the collected volumes as they came out and get complete stories all in one go that way, but aside from the same expense issues as above, it’s not always as complete as one might think. Some of the bigger stories — the ones that impact all the lines and thus the ones you’ll want to know about no matter what you’re normally reading — can really become sprawling with the different tie-ins and crossovers. If I remember right, there are four or five different volumes to Blackest Night, so if you want the whole story, it’s still going to be doled out in several chunks. These crossovers were one of the bigger reasons I tired of comic books. While they can be exciting, they can also grow tiresome if they come too often (which they did) or if they were too sprawling (which they were) or if they derailed the story you were trying to read in a regular comic (and they always did.) Marvel Comics had a “Civil War” that affected all of their titles, and loves to pit different teams of characters against each other. If you want to guess Marvel titles at random just say “Team 1” vs. “Team 2”; chances are, it’s either been done, or it’s in the works. DC Comics is just as bad about it, or even worse, having had multiple 52-issue weekly series, one of which tied into events going on in the regular series. Both companies have periodically had sets of multiple miniseries that all tied into each other, and led into a big “maxiseries” at the end of it all. It just gets to be too much to keep track of.
And sometimes it’s hard to keep track of even the story you’re reading. Superhero movie fans have learned the nature of reboots with Batman Begins, The Amazing Spider-Man and Man of Steel, but it’s a way of life for comic book fans. There are two basic forces at play in the writing of comics that make continuity a mess even for somebody with an encyclopedic knowledge of characters. The first is simple salesmanship; a shocking swerve drives up sales, so writers and editors love to throw out the familiar in favor of something new every now and then. Characters die left and right, and come back to life as frequently. I think Jean Grey of the X-Men is up to around a dozen resurrections by now, Captain America was dead for a while, and every major DC Comics character has died at least once. The second factor is that the inmates are running the asylum. The average comic book character is around twice as old as the average comic book writer. They grew up reading these characters, they’re fans, and they have their own ideas of what the best take is. And they don’t always agree. The result is that when one writer or editor takes over and doesn’t like what the previous creators did, they change it, even at the expense of linear — or quality — storytelling. The editor-in-chief at Marvel didn’t like the fact that Peter Parker wasn’t single because it “made him seem too old”, so he mandated a story where Spider-Man, in order to restore the secret of his identity and save Aunt May’s life, sold his marriage to the devil. No part of that sentence is a joke. DC Comics has restructured their entire universe at least three times that I’m aware of in the last ten years alone. Most recently they rebooted everything — literally everything — to square one, with entirely new takes on things. I gather it’s been successful for them, but I don’t know these characters anymore. The stories I knew “no longer count” for stories going forward. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Five or ten years down the line, some new editor will decide he really liked the Superman with multiple decades of history, and it’ll all come back again.
But I don’t think I will. I still enjoy some of the stories, but it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. I find I don’t have the ambition to hunt for the good stories any more. It’s more efficient — and generally more rewarding — to stick to the movies, where it’s a lot easier to tell where to begin, what’s connected, and what’s good.