Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by retailer Steve Bennett of Mary Alice Wilson's Dark Star Books in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This week Bennett tackles what's between the covers, with a look at how content may be affecting comic sales:
For years people like me have given a lot of serious thought to why super-hero comic books don't sell better. Even now, during one of our brief periodic 'booms' when comic consciousness is at an apex, sales of the actual books remain, for the most part, static. I tend to break down the most likely reasons into three categories:
- The distribution system
- The format
- The contents
In last Sunday's New York Times there was a lengthy piece about Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS, which had a quote from him about why he ultimately decided to cancel the cult favorite program Joan of Arcadia:
'In the beginning, it was a fresh idea and uplifting, and the plot lines were engaging,' Moonves said, sounding a little sad and frustrated, 'But the show got too dark. I understand why creative people like dark, but American audiences don't like dark. They like story. They do not respond to nervous breakdowns and unhappy episodes that lead nowhere. They like their characters to be part of the action. They like strength, not weakness, a chance to work out any dilemma. This is a country built on optimism.'
Of course Les isn't entirely right. Americans do like dark; see the success of such FX series as Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, and Over There. But it's undeniable that fewer do; as good as they are, these are considered 'niche' programs on a 'boutique' network (i.e., they're not The Big Tent). Recently Rescue Me cast member Diane Farr left the program to join the cast of CBS's Numb3rs because it offered her a higher salary--more viewers equaling more money.
What I propose here is that we may finally have to accept the notion the super-hero comic book is a 'niche' genre; not because this vast mass audience rejects as silly our cherished adolescent power/revenge fantasies. From the way Hollywood has steadily been 'borrowing' from us over the last few years its clear America has developed a taste for the fantastic.
But as currently written and drawn, the super-hero comic book is just too overwhelmingly dark to appeal to them.
In one of those strange coincidences that plague our industry, earlier this year on the same month DC released Wonder Woman #202 and Marvel The Pulse #2. Both comics featured a major villain brutally and ruthlessly killing a minor cast member. As written they were genuinely chilling scenes integral to the plot, but as the months went by and the criminals went unpunished it became clear the Green Goblin and Dr. Psycho had just gotten away with murder. They were never going to be punished for their crimes. Never.
Because, ultimately, the publishers need them both too much to permanently put them in a cell or stick a needle in their arms, if not next month then next year; and by then they'll have committed fresh new atrocities and no one will remember (or care) about the death of a couple of nobodies.
Batman can't protect Gotham City. Every recent issue has been another variation on the theme that the world's greatest detective is incapable of capturing a criminal who's only distinguishing characteristic is he wears a piece of his father's coffin on his face. And it should be noted that Blackmask keeps a private torture garden in his office where he occasionally flails some poor innocent schmuck so the writer can once again hammer home the point, 'oooh, he's baaaad.'
The Flash is clearly incapable of capturing any of his Rogue's Gallery, not even Captain Cold whose entire shtick consists of a freeze gun and a parka.
In Spider-Man: Breakout #5 it's established the criminals Crossfire and The U-Foes killed (at least) fifteen people -- and the U-Foes escape.
In the just published Green Lantern #4 we see the return of the villains Hector Hammond, reborn as a Hannibal Lector style psychopath (with an unhealthy attachment to Hal Jordan) and the Shark, who emerged from the surf...with a human body part dangling from his jaw.
In Marvel Knights Spider-Man, the Absorbing Man is depicted as being a drug addict.
And not long before the light-hearted, much reviled Fantastic Four movie (which, according to some, was a hit because it wasn't a teeth-gnashing super-hero movie), in the comics 'noble' villain Dr. Doom killed the only woman he'd ever loved and started running around wearing her skin as a mask.
As a man of a certain age I can vividly remember the Silver Age, but it would be a mistake to see this as a diatribe about how comic books should go back to The Good Old Days of alpha males and happy endings, consarn it. I'm simply asking, in all abject honesty, is this really anybody's idea of fun?
Next Time: Upping The Ante, Jumping The Shark.