With comic sales on the decline and the DC Relaunch looming on the horizon, the question of “what does the future hold for super-hero comics?” is an incredibly important one to consider. Before we consider the future, we must first consider the catch-22 that has held comic book narratives for decades now.
There is a tension for comic fans that is caused by a longing for the past while still wanting for something new. Nostalgia is perhaps the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of comic book companies, because nostalgia strikes a chord within the child inside of us. We long for the past because our memories are fuzzy and we believe the things we loved when we were younger are somehow more authentic than what is being produced currently. Publishers are more than willing to accommodate this aspect of its readers with stories that look back to the past and this results in projects that retell stories from the past (like Superman: Secret Origin), and while there isn’t anything inherently wrong with these types of stories, when the industry isn’t producing anything outside of these types of stories or experimenting with the super-hero formula, then it becomes a self-perpetuating machine without a chance of gaining new readers.
In Ron Marz’s column “Shelf Life” on Comic Book Resources, he writes:
Superhero comics are a business built in large part on nostalgia. It’s a genre that tends to wallow in where it’s been, rather than embrace the possibilities of where it might go. Maybe it’s human nature overall to cling to what’s familiar, rather than seeking out something new and different.
Fans want familiar stories, but they complain when nothing new comes along. When comics recycle the same content, readers are frustrated at the lack of ingenuity, but when a major change comes along, fans threaten to leave comics forever.
Such is the “damned if you do / damned if you don’t” problem facing comic book publishers today, and this is probably a very good reason why the formula hasn’t changed all that much over the years. By and large, all super-hero books are the same. They may feature different characters and themes, but at the end of the day, their function is the same; symbolic characters uphold the status quo for the greater good. Characters may experience growth or emotional strife, but even these experiences are similar to one another even if they are different. So, what direction should form and content be heading?
At the end of the ’90s and the dawn of the millenium, the form of comics changed to four-to-six-part story arcs in order to better collect them into a graphic novel format. Financially, this has been a successful practice because it allows for readers to get an entire story in one volume. Creatively speaking, however, the four-to-six-issue arcs have become stilted and formulaic. Story beats are predictable in one sense, and new readers have a difficult time of jumping into the middle of a storyline without having to pick up back issues.
Grant Morrison has experimented with the formula throughout his epic Batman run with arcs that are sometimes four issues, or two, or one, or three depending on the story. All of these arcs build off one another but none are necessarily essential to understand the next. Morrison has previously experimented with the form with his Seven Soldiers of Victory which featured seven four-issue mini-series with two single issue bookends.
Meanwhile, Mark Millar has been crafting “seasons” of Ultimates since he first started on the title. Typically six issues (perfect for collecting into a trade paperback), these seasons build off of one another, but aren’t necessary to fully understand one another.
The key problem with the form is that there is a balance between accessibility to new readers and creating a sense of continuity that builds from story to the next that must be maintained. Potential new readers can sometimes be daunted by the high numbers on the covers of Batman, Action Comics, and Amazing Spider-man. Some have even suggested throwing out the high numbering system altogether, and maybe they’re right. If new readers are intimidated by legacy numbering because it is difficult to discern where to begin, then perhaps the Mark Millar method of creating seasons is the best way to go. It creates accessability which is an absolute must in this market, but it also has the potential to foster formulaic storybeats.
Perhaps the most difficult issues lie within content. After decades of super-hero comics, what stories are left to tell? Where do we go from here?
Stormwatch and The Authority redefined the super-hero team book into a paramilitary pastiche that has been replicated across too many super-hero books to recount. These comics set the stage for a new era of comics and that era has run its course.
Morrison’s Batman Inc. seems to have created a new era of super-hero fiction that relies on the idea of the corporation as super-hero (to an extent, Marvel’s Iron Man was always this idea, but that comic comes off more like one about super-hero arms dealers rather than a network of super-heroes). But it remains to be seen whether Morrison’s idea will continue in any substantial way.
While the DC Relaunch has a lot of promise, one has to wonder about some of the voices of DC’s future considering that some are the same voices from X-men’s past. Scott Lobdell, Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld, and Jim Lee are some of the key players in the relaunch and some of the books in the relaunch feel like a rehash of ’90s sensationalism all over again. If comics are defined by their nostalgia, does this new era of comics consider the ’90s to be the new nostalgia, and if so, then are we forced to repeat ourselves over and over again?
Perhaps I’m too critical of the voice of X-men past, but this relaunch was the chance for DC to give new writers a chance to redefine their line and to create new stars. While Scott Snyder on Batman and Swamp Thing is a step in the right direction, along with Jeff Lemire on Frankenstein and Animal Man, I long to see new voices come to DC to redefine comics for a new era. Comics are a unique medium, and at one time they were on the cutting edge of creativity and inventive thinking (so much so that Hollywood has finally come around and realized they can farm ideas from super-hero comics and turn that into money). Publishers need to allow creators to experiment with their characters in order to strike out into new directions.
Some people say the super-hero genre is dead and that everything that can be done has already been done, but I’m not willing to give up on it yet. While other genres are certainly welcome and I encourage people to find books that speak to them, there is still something about super-hero stories that I still love. I still hope that there are new stories to tell in the genre that sparked my interest in reading.
Perhaps it’s my sense of nostalgia flaring up.
What do you think the future holds for super-hero comics? Let us know in the comments section!