I spent last Sunday at the West Hollywood Book Fair, which felt like a real accomplishment this year considering the temperature was well into the triple digits. It was the sort of heat where everyone stops worrying about their appearance and just accepts the fact that they look like they decided to take a shower without soap and without bothering to take off their clothes. The heat was a real problem because not only did it negatively impact attendance, but it also affected the mood of those who did show up. Most people weren’t in the state of mind to leisurely peruse the fair, talking to authors and picking up a book or two if any caught their eye.
This was definitely unfortunate and my sympathy goes to the vendors and authors who experienced less than stellar sales. I just hope they realize that the problem was the heat and not the actual event. And I hope the event organizers realize that the heat is a problem and consider pushing next year’s book fair back a month or two.
And yet, my experience at the fair was largely positive. Yes, I went through about eight bottles of water and looked a complete mess, but I had a chance to catch up with some friends, meet some cool people, have Hope Larson sign my copy of Mercury, and moderate a pretty thorough panel on comic books outside the “Big Three” (though we could never really agree on who the third big publisher was, so we stuck to Marvel and DC). I was actually very pleased with how the panel went, and much gratitude must be extended to my four panelists: Joshua Hale Fialkov, Richard Starkings, Renae Geerlings and Raphael Navarro. Each contributed a fair amount to the discussion and each brought vastly different experiences to the table, which resulted in a really comprehensive discussion on the subject of publishing comics outside the Big Two. There were a few disagreements and differences of opinion, but there was certainly one thing that came up several times. Comic book fans really need to start buying stuff other than Big Two superhero books.
You know, I’m a lifelong superhero fan, and that’s never going to change. I’ve seen just about every superhero movie opening week in the movie theater and that will probably continue until my dying day. I still enjoy a great superhero story and although it seems to be a losing battle, I really do try to keep up with most of the Batman titles. But I reached a point in my life when I’d had enough and stopped buying 98% of the superhero titles that I had been buying. The reason for my decision was a key point in our discussion on Sunday: Marvel and DC no longer care about doing what’s creatively best for their properties. Instead, their interest is in leveraging them for all they’re worth. All the major characters (including my boy Bruce Wayne) have numerous monthly titles, along with multiple miniseries, one-shots and crossovers that come out each year. Forget about whether people actually want that much Aquaman in their lives, it’s there, spread across comic shop shelves and crowding out smaller independent and creator-owned titles. But that’s not even my point here. Let’s look at what such a glut does to the character.
Look at the recent YA fiction trend. Do you want to know why series like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games are going to be read decades from now? And why books like Hatchet, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Ender’s Game and His Dark Materials continue to be read by readers of all ages years after their publication? It’s because all of those series were limited. The authors had a clear story in mind, and they stuck to that. And from the very start, I can guarantee you that they knew their story had an end.
Could J.K. Rowling have added to her already ridiculous fortune by franchising Harry Potter and cranking out volume after volume of it? Would a “Tales of the Mockingjay” comic book “written” by Suzanne Collins and scripted by some unknown comic book writer (who actually does all of the work, but shares credit with Collins since her name is the one that will move copies) sell like cupcakes? Does Haymitch like his drink?
There’s no doubt the above projects would sell, but the true cost would be the value of the original source material. And yes, this is coming from a guy who edits Fraggle Rock comics. (Which I don’t feel makes my statement at all hypocritical. Fraggle Rock was a TV show. It’s designed to be episodic. Most fiction isn’t and I think it loses much of its relevance when it’s designed to be.)
We can argue that properties can be put through a lot before they lose their literary significance. Certainly Sherlock Holmes remains as important a literary figure as ever, despite having survived not only four novels and 56 short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but countless film and TV adaptations. But even the strongest characters—and the most iconic superheroes are as strong as they come—can only withstand so much. Superman will celebrate his 80th Anniversary in two years. That’s 80 years of continuous publication, not to mention the radio and movie serials, the numerous TV shows and movies and quite a few novelizations. How many stories can there really be to tell with the character? And more to the point, would DC honestly let them be told? Only if whatever impact they may have on the universe can be reversible or described away by some space-time anomaly or reality-altering superweapon or some other convenient plot device created to maintain the status quo. Anyone who reads comic books for any length of time knows that nothing really changes in them. Not for long. Eventually, the dead are brought back and the supervillains are released from prison.
That, my friends, is the very essence of disposable entertainment, and that’s why comics and graphic novels as a medium continue to be so readily dismissed by so many adult readers. Ask yourself, how the prose novel would look if its flagship titles were The Babysitters Club, the ongoing work of V.C. Andrews and ever popular Star Wars and Star Trek novelizations? There are many readers who look at comics much the same way, and while it would be easy to dismiss them as ignorant (an assessment that isn’t without some truth), it’s an ignorance that we helped perpetuate.
Look, I’m not saying we should stop publishing all superhero books. There are some good ones out there. Let’s just stick to publishing those ones. The truly good ones. The Batman and Robins. The Invincibles. The ones that really stand out and get people talking. And when the writers of the projects decide they’re done, end the fucking things. Keep Batman on ice until another brilliant idea comes around.
There’s nothing wrong with disposable entertainment. But when it gets to the point that it’s defining a whole medium and quality projects are suffering and struggling to find an audience as a result, then it’s getting a little out of hand. And I’m afraid that’s where we are right now.
And for once, it’s not going to take a superhero to save us.