Sunday, August 12, 2012

Coming Up, In Our Next Issue...

I think I've figured out why comic book collecting isn't as fun for me as it used to be, and it can be summed up in one word:  continuity.

The mainstays from the '60s--Superman, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, Avengers, et al.--are still being published.  That's a remarkable testimonial to their popularity--and, unfortunately, a hole that the industry has inadvertently dug for itself.  Since the books were generally published once a month, the comic book companies had the luxury of being able to continue their stories for two or three decades without the stories or artwork suffering to any great extent.  The result was a solid collection of books with rich histories that readers could grow with and depend upon.  But then, a couple of things began to happen that would signal the beginning of the end for the characters as we knew them: 
Spinoffs.  I really loved it when there was only one book you had to buy to keep track of the characters.  When an "annual" or "special" was done, that was the icing on the cake.  The monthly wait was sometimes agony, particularly if the book had a story with intense drama (Fantastic Four #s 57-60 is a classic example).  But you could depend on the character you were reading being the same character you'd read about the month before.  If he'd been seriously injured in battle, there would be consequences from that to deal with in the next issue--not omitted in another title featuring the same character.

But spinoffs (as well as mini-series) changed all that.  The first book I remember to be handled this way was Amazing Spider-Man, which spawned into Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man and Web of Spider-Man, with Todd McFarlane also starting Spider-Man sometime later.  It was all Spider-Man, all the time.  At one point, Marvel finally cut back on some of the titles--but then the comics films were released, and all hell broke loose.  I practically tripped over all the different Spider-Man and X-Men and Wolverine books, trying to get to the ones I want.  The worst part is that no one is really making an effort to tie anything together, or to remember past events when writing a new story.  What enjoyment or drama can you take away from a story, when it might very well be tossed aside when it becomes inconvenient?

Time.  With the proliferation of additional titles and series featuring the same characters, it was only a matter of time before the sheer volume of stories became so vast that it would become next to impossible to recall events that would otherwise prohibit a writer from proceeding with a story.  Fantastic Four featured a story where Reed becomes part of a $2 billion+ experiment to take advantage of conditions in space that duplicate the precise circumstances that created the FF, so that others can gain cosmic-ray-enhanced powers.  Reed is staggered and intrigued by apparently something that's never occurred to him to research.  But Reed wouldn't be doing much stretching if a variation of this story hadn't already occurred 300 issues prior, where Reed regains the use of his stretching powers by artificially recreating the chain of events that first created the FF.
The mindset these days seems to be to keep the same characters (along with the basics of their abilities), but simply plug them into self-contained storylines and not focus on their histories to any depth.  Also, you have a new generation of writers and artists on board who have no mandate to factor in what has gone before.  That may or may not be a good thing.  On the positive side, it wouldn't be feasible to consider a character's entire battle history as canon.  For one thing, they'd have to be far older than they are; also, it's asking a great deal of us to believe that anyone can squeeze so many conflicts into one life.  For another, it's not believable that a character hasn't evolved, given such a long history.  At first glance, then, self-contained stories would seem to be the best of both worlds.  But to me, the characters are now hollow ones.  You get all the trappings of Ben Grimm, but when he loses his temper you get none of his anguish underneath at being the Thing.  Iron Man is now so technically blended with Tony Stark that the latter might as well not even remove the suit.  And do we care anymore about Bruce Banner?

Comic books seem to have survived and made the transition to the 21st century.  But at what cost, I wonder? As time goes on, will we remember the characters--or simply indulge in the moment of a tightly-produced story arc?

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