Sunday, January 27, 2013

Blogathon 33: Monthly Quality (Ryan K. Lindsay Guest Post)

Can We Expect Greatness Multiple Times Every Month?

Making monthly comics is hard. This thought recently crossed my mind as I’ve started doing it. However, at Marvel and DC, some people are doing it multiple times a month. Many of the stable creators at the Big Two regularly pump out 4 issues a month, or more. It’s a mammoth feat and one to be respected but how can we expect greatness from every title under this factory produced mentality. I’m not saying it doesn’t occur, Uncanny X-Force and Batman recently prove you can make the donuts and have them be insanely delicious, but I’m asking why we make the hub of comics (in both sales and stewardship) a production line where creativity cannot be key because the deadline is always going to crush it.

Let’s chat about why making comics on a neverending deadline of 30 day periods might not be the best thing for the industry.

Let me please assure you, I am not here to bash the Big Two, nor any of their creators. This isn’t a negative post but one of curiosity. I will also openly state I read plenty of Big Two books, as many as I read from outside the Big Two. I’m not saying they make terrible books, but I do think their system lends itself to closer to that than epiphanic dreams and nightmares on the page which will enlighten and broaden entire generations.

Hitting deadlines is important. Publishers often talk of missing deadlines and then losing numbers. If someone expects your book to be out on Date X then that’s exactly when it should ship. If not, people will wander away and spend their money on someone else’s tale. Obviously, deadlines are important. No one wants to wait years for the next issue because the muse hasn’t struck you yet. That’s just garbage and not to be tolerated but what we have right now is a culture where creators land on a title and then stick on it for years at a stretch. And this is quite possibly because of the audience. Fans want to know how long creators will be on a title and if they drop off after 6-12 issues then they deride the entire run as being a flash in the pan and unworthy of their time. Why this is so I cannot fathom because so many great comics are made in short bursts. In fact, if you pick the greatest comic stories of all time you’ll find a very large majority of them came when a creative team hit it and quit it. Frank Miller knew not to overstay his welcome on Batman and Daredevil after dropping what many believe to be the best stories for each character.

If someone today of Miller’s calibre circa the 80s tried to drop in and tell their tale and get out they would find many harsh calls from the internet. People want Bendis level runs that capture a decade and define a generation of readers. Look through many interviews and you’ll find one of the most common questions for a creator is how long they will be on their latest title. And if it’s a short run those creators rarely talk about it. They focus on their story.

The opposite is Jonathan Hickman who says he’s already planned 60+ issues of his forthcoming Avengers run – and I can’t help but feel that locks me out of trying it because I worry I won’t get great stories. I’ll get miniscule pieces of this grand operatic drama that I’ll have to commit hundreds of dollars to if I want to see if I like it. To digress, when Hickman took over Fantastic Four, he led with a 3 issue storyline. It was excellent. I loved it. It remains one of my favourite FF stories of all time. But then his run devolved into this insane tapestry that intrigued me but didn’t ever grab me in that month with that single issue. However, I am aware, this could just be me. Plenty of others loved his FF saga and will no doubt adore his Avengers work, and big ups to them.

Back to the point, if a creator feels they have to be locked into a title for a run that will cover 50 issues and thus many plots, how are they expected to hit it out of the park each and every arc? Making a masterpiece isn’t a science and no one should expect it to happen every time. Yet fans often do. Rick Remender was the writer and main creative force between the first year of Uncanny X-Force and in that time he told The Dark Angel Saga which, for me, is pound for pound the greatest superhero tale of the past ten years. This is the icon that this era of comics will be hung from. Yet, with its conclusion, Remender was expected to back it up the next month (I haven’t checked solicits but it may very well have been the next fortnight due to UXF being a ‘double-shipped’ title that drops twice a month). Is it likely that you will tell the greatest story of the year and then start the next greatest story within 30 days? No, it’s not bloody likely. And so the next arc of UXF, Otherworld, was good but not on the level of TDAS and so fans complained. Now, Otherworld was very good, let’s give Remender credit that the man knows how to do his job, but it wasn’t TDAS. I don’t expect to see the next TDAS for another decade. And that’s fine.

Creating a masterpiece, especially in comics, is contingent on so many things occurring. The story must be quality and still broken up perfectly to match page beats and issue rests. The art must be grand – in pencils, inks, colours, and the other skills that go into fantastic arting (composition, storytelling, X factor). When a creator is on a title for 5 years and 50+ issues, I don’t expect every start from the gate will be clean. Hell, even Remender wrote one stinker of a UXF issue that I did not dig at all (sorry, Mr Remender).

I’m happy to accept that a guy writing two 20 page scripts a month for one book (while possibly writing similar copy for other titles) and doing so for anything more than a year is not going to be slapping ball after ball into the bleachers so he can round the diamond once more. In fact, while I’ve adored Remender’s UXF, I found his Venom flat, and his Secret Avengers fun but also thin. UXF proves to me, alongside Franken-Castle and Fear Agent to only name a few, that Remender knows how to play this game of making comics exceptionally well. But I don’t expect him to do it for every issue of every title he’s writing. He said recently, on Kieron Gillen’s amazing process podcast DECOMPRESED, that at one time he was writing UXF, Secret Avengers, Captain America, and Uncanny Avengers all at the same time. That doesn’t even take into accunt the outside Marvel work he’s been cooking up. How can someone hit all those marks and think anymore than the odd one will be a bullseye?

Let’s look at another Marvel stalwart (and university accredited architect) Matt Fraction. I am a massive Fraction fan but not every single issue from Marvel has been genius, which can be heartbreaking because we know he is capable of genius, many times over (see: Casanova, Immortal Iron Fist, some of Punisher: War Journal), but do we really expect him to write 46 issues of Thor (I think he said it was 46, I can’t find his tweet now – and be damned if I’m digging through wikipedia to navigate the many number changes and minis he done to verify it, what am I, a journalist?) and every single one of them will be gold dust? I cannot fathom how it is possible to churn out scripts for Fear Itself, Invincible Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, and possibly Casanova at the same time and expect all of those title to be masterpieces. This all probably came while he was planning out Hawkeye, Fantastic Four, FF, and his new Image books. Again, I’m not saying they all have to be winners, but wouldn’t it be nice if they had the chance? Under the pressures of doing so much, they cannot. I know comic creators need to survive, and feed families, etc, but at what point does a comic creator break?

I find it interesting to see that the point in which a comic creator breaks appears to be 2012. You’ve all seen the recent Image news of multiple Big Two creators running to the ‘independent’ scene to just make great comics. I feel like Vaughan and Kirkman did it long ago, but now we see Brubaker, Fraction, Morrison, Rucka, et al all heading off into the rosy sunset of Image Comics to hopefully make the same bang for their buck (easier to do with smaller sales if you are reaping a higher percentage) and also ensure the highest quality of their work by not needing to do four titles a month, with extra shipping on some of them. Little editorial fiddling with things, no continuity or crossover to align with, and the ability to paint with the widest and most durable canvas possible.

The exodus of Big Two creators intrigues me because it finally proves a point I had worried about, how good can your work be when it’s manufactured and not created? Ed Brubaker was the first crack I truly studied (and he’s a guy whose Marvel output was pretty spectacular at times).He churned out an intense amount of product for Marvel and while some was spectacular other stuff would only be okay. It’s the nature of the game. Now Brubaker is off to the golden lands of creator owned comics and film script work based off his own IP (wink).

It seems like Brubaker is now looking at a future of writing what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants. Hell, he’d already been doing that with Criminal and Incognito and look at the great results there. Some of the best comics from the past decade, without a doubt. It surely has to be easier to find greatness through your own creative process rather than doing it on a timed schedule like a caged egg farm. I mean, Brubaker even started alternating between writing Criminal and Incognito, and now Fatale, just to switch it up and keep himself (and always amazing amigo Sean Phillips) fresh. That seems like a smart move and the product supports this statement. If you are stuck on Uncanny X-Men for 3 years then you don’t get to walk away and refresh yourself. You just keep faking it until you make it.

Now Matt Fraction says he’s written [insert large number mentioned on Word Balloon here] issues since last January and he’s burnt out. He wants a break. He’s going to pick up the FF duo on the Marvel NOW! initiative, he’ll have Hawkeye (which is sublimely stellar), and he’ll do his weird tales over at Image. That just about seems manageable. I think over the next 12-24 months, you’ll see many more creators realising their best creations don’t come from being poked monthly (and twice monthly) and be expected to hand it over.

Look at BKV with Saga. I’m a massive fan and I’m content with just this series for now because he’s got all the time in the world to make each issue’s script sing. Admittedly, he’s also got the fanbase and sales to back up only doing this book and still paying the bills, but it shows that making the golden egg come out of the goose takes care and effort, it doesn’t just happen.

Who knows, maybe runs will become shorter? Maybe creators will move more. Maybe. But I doubt it. Fans don’t want that, it would often appear, and the companies like a good brand behind and for the title. It isn’t just the Avengers, it’s Bendis’ Avengers and there has to be something said for the power of such a claim to hold over a title. But who reading this can tell me the perfect Avengers story that Bendis told? Which tale will stand the test of time as the pinnacle that title, and those characters, have to offer? And don’t think I’m being a dick, I think Bendis wrote one of the most solid runs in the history of comics. The quality didn’t often dip below the dreaded ‘drop this title’ line but it never seemed to soar above the clouds and look down as a titanic classic. Bendis’ Avengers is like the John Hughes best friend who will not and cannot and should not ever be the boyfriend. He’s just there for a hug and some quality time, he won’t rock your socks off at 2am after too many tequila slammers. His Daredevil, however, will crush you and leave you breathless in the back of his car.

My final question is; we all want the best comics we can possibly buy, so why do we currently have a system where some of our favourite characters are rushed into hands each month without the greatest care being that of quality? Is there a better way? If there is, I’m sure only Chad Nevett has it…

[Don't forget to donate what you can to the Hero Initiative (Details in this post)! After you do, let me know via comment or e-mail (found at the righthand side) so I can keep track of donations -- and who to thank.]