Curt Purcell blogs about horror at The Groovy Age of Horror, specifically as it applies to ’60s-‘70s era film, paperbacks and comics.
He’s been following DC’s “Blackest Night” storyline/event/crossover/thing for what probably seems like the obvious reasons—at its core, “Blackest Night” has been horror movie tropes grafted onto Green Lantern space opera and big superhero “Crisis” business.
It’s made for pretty good reading, since Purcell’s a fine writer and it’s always refreshing to see a reader not completely steeped in modern super-comics reacting the them—the stuff a lot of us quit noticing long ago and started taking for granted is often glaringly obvious to relative newcomers.
Purcell’s Tuesday post pulls back from the specifics of the storyline a bit to ask some existential questions about crossovers and tie-ins in general, prompted by reactions to his reactions:
Everyone seems to know tie-ins are just cash-grabs. Everyone knows how much they suck. Everyone can even explain to “newbies” like me why tie-ins have to suck. Nobody seems to expect any better of them. But then why are they still being published? Which is to say—knowing all that, with those expectations, who buys them anyway, and why?
Those are pretty good questions (One of the possible answers he comes up with reflects kinda poorly on the American comics industry as a whole—”What fans are saying is, ‘Never mind good comics—give us cheap plastic doodads!’ DC certainly seems to be doing just that in this current batch of tie-ins, including the part about never minding good comics.”)
I don’t want to get in too deep to the relative virtues and vices of “Blackest Night” and how it’s being told and sold. It seems to me you can read Blackest Night and Green Lantern and get the whole story, and you can simply opt in to more if you want it. Certainly Green Lantern Corps is probably a bit more relevant than other books. The first crop of series seemed pretty much designed only for hardcore fans. Like, if you’re insane about Batman and need to know what he’s doing, here’s a three-issue, completely unimportant Blackest Night: Batman series.
Obviously the event is growing, and the tie-ins occurring within pre-existing books are more problematic (There’s a reason they didn’t stick the Batman, Superman and Teen Titans crossovers into the pre-existing titles featuring those characters, right?). And then there’s those “undead” books coming back from cancellation—I think that’s kind of clever, but they can’t possibly be all that important.
No, what I want to do is take a stab at some of the questions Purcell raised regarding why crossovers and tie-ins exist, even though no one seems to expect them to be any good at all.
I’ve been thinking about the nature of crossover comics of this sort ever since it became apparent that DC’s Infinite Crisis and Marvel’s Civil War weren’t special publishing events so much as new business models for the companies.
I started reading superhero comics in the early ‘90s, back when DC would do such events once or twice a year, generally in the summer annuals. Some of them were awesome, some of them were terrible, but as a new comics readers, they were all terribly exciting for me—offering little snapshots of the DC Universe (and line of comics) for that particular year. I’d meet new characters, find new creators, and end up following new books here and there.
Eventually, DC did fewer and fewer such events, and then stopped completely for a while. They stopped around the same time that the Marvel Universe lost some of its connectivity, and each creative team and book seemed to exist in its own little universe for a while.
I assumed the same thing would happen again eventually. That readers would get so burnt out on constant crossovers that they would buy fewer and fewer issues of each until the publishers realized that interest had waned and it was time to give crossovers a few years off.
And yet, just looking at DC for a moment, that obviously hasn’t happened yet. Blackest Night is enormously popular, and the fact that it follows disappointing events and series like Amazons Attack and Countdown seems to prove not that the market is tiring of DC’s big crossovers, simply that it will support them when they’re good (or what the market perceives as good).
So, if no one ever expects crossovers to be good, why do Marvel and DC keep publishing them? Because they still sell well. And why do they keep selling so well? Why haven’t they gone out of style yet, the way that summer annual events eventually did?
I have two theories.
First, it may simply be a matter of the crossovers being better, more carefully produced. Marvel in particular has done a good job of keeping elements of the crossovers separate from ongoing storylines within certain titles, by generally launching standalone miniseries. For example, during Secret Invasion, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Fantastic Four wasn’t interrupted for a Secret Invasion tie-in, Marvel just launched a short, Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four miniseries with a different creative team (Same goes for Spider-Man, Thor, The X-Men, etc).
Additionally, the architects of these stories are often the company’s most influential writers at the moment. So it’s not like someone’s coming out of nowhere and dictating to the whole writing staff what they need to do with their books; Geoff Johns, Brian Michael Bendis and Grant Morrison are often writing their company’s flagship books in addition to writing the big event stories.
Blackest Night, for example, is a Green Lantern story that Johns has been telling for years, spilling out across the line. Avengers Disassembled, House of M, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Siege…these are all merely Bendis’ New Avengers plotting, being reflected across Marvel’s line of books.
The events are no longer reserved simply for annuals—which don’t really exist the way they used to anyway—or so small and self-contained that they end in a summer or so. Rather, something like “Dark Reign,” which has been more of a status quo than an actually story, can run about a year, so it seems important and more long-lasting than something like, say, Armageddon 2001 was.
Anyway, that’s one theory. That Marvel and DC paid attention to what readers didn’t like about past crossovers around the time that people were getting burned out on them, and corrected that, allowing for this decade’s crossovers to stick around longer (And perhaps the rise of the trade paperback market has a little something to do with this? Today’s crossovers will end up in evergreen trades in bookstores and libraries, where having the whole universe worth of characters between the same set of covers will always be a draw.)
My other theory is a somewhat sadder one—perhaps the market has simply shrunk to such an extent that DC and Marvel can count on at least 60- to 100,000 readers to pick up any and all big crossover stories, and there will always be enough completists among those that a Blackest Night tie-in to The Outsiders or a Dark Reign: Lethal Legion miniseries will at least turn a profit.
The comics-buying public has certainly gotten small enough that publishers know exactly what their existing readers want, and can try to provide it while taking as few risks as possible. Now that less than 100K constitutes a monster hit, it’s not all that hard to formulate something to meet today’s more modest goals.
That’s the best I can come up with, anyway.