Lately, talk in the blogosphere has turned to the emphasis of plot over aesthetics in superhero books. Although plot does get a lot of play, given the realities of corporate superhero serials’ production, that doesn’t mean it can’t be managed more productively.
Now that Marvel and DC so greatly emphasize their books as vehicles for plot permutations — as opposed to peak experiences, say, or places to find this month’s great art — this heightens the value of that information as a kind of cultural currency, to the point where a once-novel pleasure, which probably had its greatest expression in the old Amazing Heroes Preview Specials, has become the unquestioned prize in a battle between fans and pros over what should be revealed and how. In other words, if the main selling point of your comic is a new and bold direction for Mucous Man, then anything surrendering for public consumption the details of that direction may work against sales. In contrast, if your emphasis is “another stellar effort from Claremont/Byrne” or “the latest babe drawings from Michael Turner,” plot reveals won’t devalue that experience as much.
This is one of those issues which, at least in my mind, threatens to get real esoteric or real obvious (or both), real fast. You’ve been warned.
Here’s the obvious part: plot provides the foundation for Marvel’s and DC’s respective superhero titles. Thus, I think Tom’s phrase “cultural currency” is exactly right. While a writer’s or artist’s particular appeal depends on his or her style, plot cuts across stylistic lines, such that the proof is in the execution. Indeed, more and more I seem to find myself saying, “Well, I’m not too thrilled with Setup #14, but if anyone can sell me on it, Writer X/Artist A can.”
That’s getting a little ahead of things, though. Ideally, from the publisher’s point of view, Setup #14 should sell itself. After all, if you’re depending on writers and artists to sell your books, your production logistics are placed in their hands. Moreover, if you’re running a shared universe, you want to have as much control over the big events of that universe as possible. Writer X shouldn’t be able to go too far afield, lest the deviations affect Writer Y’s book. Sounds like the logistics of Countdown and Civil War, doesn’t it?
Naturally, plot — in the “this is what happens to the character” sense — is also the glue which connects the tenures of creative teams. DC (and Marvel, in a slightly different way) has staked its fortunes on the idea that a corporately-owned character can be the subject of a continuous narrative, cultivated by an endless parade of writers and artists, and operating within certain broadly-defined parameters. Regardless of what happens within those parameters, plot is the underlying, unifying factor.
Thus, from that perspective, plot becomes more significant than stylistic choices, because plot will be there regardless of who’s writing and drawing. Moreover, while plot can unify, it can also distinguish. Specifically, plot can help perpetuate a corporately-owned character by carving out a new iteration, such as the Post-Crisis Superman (married, never Superboy, Earth parents still alive). That’s almost beside the point, though. Since we assume that Superman will always a) be published and b) need something to do, the question then becomes not so much who’s working on Superman, but what they’ll bring to the title.
And with that, we’re back to the artistic merits of a particular title, but you can see the circuitous route we’ve taken. DC probably doesn’t want readers to follow particular writers and artists, because it doesn’t own them. It does own the characters, and it can shape what happens to them. Therefore, I feel pretty safe in saying that DC tends to focus on promoting a writer or artist only as far as that promotion sells a particular comic book. Its goal is to get readers hooked on Action Comics, Green Lantern Corps, et al., so that the moving streams of each continuous narrative sweep readers along, month after month, regardless of who’s writing or drawing.
Accordingly, if readers have been so trained, they might not even value artistic merit over plot mechanics. That would certainly help explain the comparatively poor sales of Mark Waid and George Pérez’s (and now Jerry Ordway’s) The Brave and the Bold. B&B features two professionals in top form, presenting self-contained superhero stories in (let’s say) a “neoclassical” manner. Yes, sometimes it includes obscure characters like the Boy Commandos or the Shining Knight, but more often than not it draws from the A- and B-lists. Even so, in February it sold some 39,000 copies, compared to about 67,000 for the lowest-selling issue of Countdown.
Now, two examples don’t make a theory, and DC seems to be getting away from the top-down, editorially-mandated approach which found ultimate expression in Countdown. Still, it’s hard not to think that trusty old Setup #14 might just sell itself after all — and sell almost twice as much as Mark Waid and George Pérez.
So, if plot is currency, then fans should favor its unexpected acquisition. Thus, “marvel_b0y” is the latest in a series of spies. (Of course he’s a spy. At one point in the ’90s, DC presented its in-book teases as being from “your Mole at 1700 Broadway.”) I’m not completely up to speed on his strange and terrible saga, but it does strike me as symptomatic of a certain fan mentality. In words of one syllable, some fans think they know as much as the pros do. As I wrote back in November:
I certainly can’t speak for all superhero-comic fans, but I’d be willing to be that many see themselves on equal footing with the pros in at least two ways: both groups start with the same access to the texts, and thus to the “rules” [i.e., plot] of a particular longstanding character; and neither group can claim to have created that character. Those contentions may not be defensible, but I do think they exist. Thus, the character exists independently from its creator(s) [at least in a sense], the current creative team doesn’t have an absolute claim on it, and its corporate owner is only out to make a buck — so who else is going to stick up for the character’s best interests but a fan?
Again, I’m not saying I feel that way. I’m not saying the majority of superhero-comic fans feel that way. I honestly don’t know. However, I’m guessing that such a line of thinking could reinforce fan “attachment,” “entitlement,” whatever you want to call it.
With such a knowledge base at his disposal, and the inclination to think critically about how Character X’s past might inform Character X’s future, it’s only natural that a given fan might want to see if he can out-think the pros. If marvel_b0y can then confirm that fan’s speculation, then … I don’t know, maybe Marvel owes the fan a Coke.
By the way, back in the summer of ’91, I figured out the whole “Captain Atom is the Armageddon 2001 villain” thing simply by looking at shipping schedules. Since the Justice League Europe Annual was the last A2K1 tie-in shipping before the crossover’s conclusion, the villain must have been a JLE’er; and process of elimination (not to mention the concurrent cancellation of his solo book) led me to Cap. I wasn’t too thrilled about that, because I liked Cap; so the change actually improved the story for me.
But again, I digress.
If I were feeling more charitable, I might be inclined to see such things as the Countdown “Colorforms” ads, and the current “Successories”-inspired campaign, as DC’s attempts to connect with its fans. It’s bonding through marketing, complete with secret codes and hidden messages.
However, it doesn’t get us any closer to a more high-minded discussion of the books’ artistic merits. A focus on plot, and the perception that Shocking! Twists! are the prize in a bizarre game of Capture the Flag, may only exacerbate the codependencies between fans and publishers. Fans try to guess a payoff which may never come (for too long, I thought Kyle Rayner was just a temp), and publishers try to keep up with fan expectations. In the end, nobody’s entirely happy, and the comics look more like Countdown than The Brave and the Bold.
Admittedly, that’s a worst-case scenario, and I have no idea how close it comes to reality. DC does use creators as selling points, not just for B&B but for the All-Star books, a few other superhero-type titles like The Spirit and Astro City, and even Final Crisis and Trinity. The company’s talk about smaller “events,” and its acknowledgment of Countdown‘s shortcomings, may actually produce a real shift in the way the superhero books are presented.
Is there an easy solution? Again, I’m not sure. However, I agree that such a shift — towards the merits of the books themselves, and away from the idea that particular books are “necessary” regardless of their aesthetic qualities — can only help. I don’t think it’s as simple as “fans can only buy what DC wants to sell,” because the issues are bound up with fan expectations and the peculiar relationships fans have with the characters themselves. There’s also the presence of certain writers (Geoff Johns, for example) whose plotting has made them popular. Part of it, too, is the age-old question of why the good stuff never seems to sell as well.
If the goal is to elevate the discussion, then I’ve probably been as guilty as anyone of keeping it on the same level. We’ll always talk about plot to some extent, but if we get fans and pros talking consistently about good comics, I’d say plot, including its attendant temptations, will take care of itself.