I’m not sure quite why I’ve been thinking so much about the comic book/TV theory lately. It’s got something to do with both the DC Rebirth announcement and Eric Stephenson’s keynote from ComicsPro, I know that, but it goes beyond just that — I feel like there’s been some weird “comics are just like TV shows because they’re both serialized pop cultural narratives” meme present for awhile, what with the trend to refer to comics series as “seasons” that started with… what, Dark Horse’s Buffy? Surely not.
Nonetheless, it’s a cross-media model that mainstream comics — by which I mean superhero comics, for the most part, although Image’s superhero-in-language-at-least output falls into this too, I think — alludes to a lot. The whole “season” thing has always been troublesome to me; Marvel’s Axel Alonso talked about All-New All-Different Marvel concreting a move to a “seasonal model” for the publisher, but to describe it as that seems to misunderstand what TV seasons actually are.
For one thing, they’re generally fixed-length in terms of episodes — 13 or 22 for network shows — and also in terms of timing: they’re an annual cycle. In comics, that’s rarely the case; relaunches come along whenever numbers fall too hard, or it’s time for the next big linewide promotional cycle or creative team change — TV series generally carry creatives between seasons, which is another difference between them.
But that last element stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that comics put more emphasis on the creators than TV shows. Sure, audiences know the actors and may recognize some showrunners (the ones on the more nerd-friendly properties like Community or Battlestar Galactica, say), but in general, what percentage of the Castle audience can name the writer or director of any given episode? How many fans of The Flash, even, could tell one writer from another?
That was in my head when I read Eric Stephenson’s ComicsPro keynote address last week, which was exactly what you want from a Stephenson address — well-meaning, passionate and occasionally out-of-sync with what Image does as a publisher (Bemoaning putting out too many books and variant covers? Come now). At one point, though he talked about pushing out multiple issues of a comic book in a month.
“And if you are a publisher trying to shore up your numbers by releasing more than one issue of a single title a month: Stop,” he said. “It’s makes it next to impossible for retailers to accurately track sales, it puts undue pressure on even your most loyal fans, and it deprives writers and artists of the ability to do their best work. In fact, it all but robs artists of the ability to establish the kind of multi-issue runs that define long and illustrious careers.”
I read that, and I thought, fuck yeah. And then I thought, well, maybe.
The reason for the well, maybe is that I have a fondness for 2000AD‘s Judge Dredd, which rotates creators in and out with great frequency. I had a fondness for Marvel’s Brand New Day era of Amazing Spider-Man, which did the same thing. I even have a fondness for the 1970s/1980s Superman and Action Comics runs, which kind of did the same thing as Brand New Day, drawing on a pool of creatives but without one primary creator in charge, instead relying on the editor to keep it all together. And it struck me, that’s the network TV model in action right there.
It’s not that the resulting work lacks a voice — anyone arguing that there isn’t a specific Dredd “feel,” or that there wasn’t a consistent voice to BND-era Amazing Spider-Man would need to re-read those series, I’d argue — but that the focus of the work, the star of the comic, is the fictional star of the comic. That’s increasingly unusual in “mainstream comics,” for whatever reason; more and more, the stars are the creators.
I’m surprisingly ambivalent about that, for reasons I can’t put my finger on. I don’t begrudge credit, literally, being given where it’s due. The creators are the draw, the reason people are picking up the comics? That’s great! That’s as it should be, and as someone who loves Jack Kirby comics and Walt Simonson comics and Eddie Campbell comics and John Allison comics, I’m completely onboard.
And yet, honestly, there’s part of me that feels like there’s not really any problem with Superman comics being more about Superman than, say, Greg Pak or Gene Yang or John Romita Jr. (And I say that as someone who’s loved Action Comics and Superman lately.) A Batman series that’s consistently good, even if writers and artists swap out? I have absolutely no problem with that; the character can provide the consistency, as long as the quality is up there, surely…?
And yet, that’s not where comics culture is right now, and it’s what makes me think that the comics-as-TV shift is about more than just ensuring that people don’t complain about relaunches on a regular basis, but instead come to expect them. Right now, comics feel more like movies, in a strange way, invested in creators the way that movies support the auteur theory to some degree. But when we think about comics as television, then we change the focus towards the characters and the frequency and the idea that “showrunners” and rotating creative teams are the way ahead.
The more this stuff runs around in my head, the more I think that there isn’t actually a way forward. Instead, what “mainstream comics” needs to do is accept that there are different approaches and different attitudes and what works for something won’t work for everything. Maybe what we need is more variety behind the scenes as well as on the shelves. (And probably to stop comparing the industry to every other entertainment industry out there, as well. But that’ll never happen.)