For those of you unaware of the phrase, status quo simply means the state of things in a normal, unaltered setting. If, on an average day, you spend your time working from home, watching internet videos, and cooking yourself some Ramen noodles because you’re a broke college student like me, that’s your status quo. Now, if I suddenly was forced to leave school for health reasons, my status quo would shift accordingly. The status quo can change, but it’s hard for that shift to be relevant if, say, the previous one had barely existed to begin with.
Where to start?
Welcome to the main problem with modern comics, at least with DC and Marvel. See, people ask me often where they should begin if they want to read comics, at which point I usually have to tell them there is no best point, and they should just pick up some random books and roll with it. But, inevitably, they ask for recommendations, and I search through my memory banks to find what big event would be a perfect starting spot, introducing readers to these characters that I now know and love in a way that gives them the ability to jump right in to where comics are today…
…And I can’t. Because nothing really stays the same in comics long enough for it to be relevant. And unless I choose a point three weeks ago, so much has probably changed since the last event that it’s almost not even worth it.
The long list
Let’s look at Marvel for an example of what I’m talking about. I used to always point to Avengers Disassembled as the perfect jumping on point for Marvel readers, since that event was the beginning of a huge shift in tone for the Marvel Universe. But that tone has since shifted thanks to the Heroic Age line of books in 2010, so maybe that’s where the recommendation should lie. Except since then, there have been seventeen (17!!!) events that are worth mentioning from this long list of crossover events in the Marvel Universe. This isn’t to say this is a new problem for Marvel; I counted a good 26 events between 2004 and 2010 that “dramatically altered ” the status quo of the Marvel Universe. With that much changing constantly, I’m genuinely not sure that ‘status quo’ can be used anymore.
And before anyone gets the idea that DC is somehow doing better in this regard, I should remind you all that the 2011 reboot was not the first time DC has rebooted their universe. In fact, it wasn’t even that long ago. The last reboot? Infinite Crisis in 2005. That’s right, it only took them six years to make the books so convoluted that they felt a reboot was once again necessary to bring in new readers. Before that, Crisis on Infinite Earths had done it 20 years prior. And for the record, I’m leaving out quite a few events that dramatically alter both the past and the present of characters on smaller scale that could be considered “mini-reboots” of particular series. In essence, DC doesn’t shake things up as often as Marvel, but when they do, they go BIG.
Some of you might be wondering why this is such a big deal. After all, big events are awesome, as everyone loves seeing their favourite costumed pals fighting together side by side to fight some ultimate evil, right? And the constant tension of knowing these most powerful badasses are on the horizon mean that anything is possible, leading characters to grow in new and interesting ways, right? Right?
Not exactly. As I like to do, let’s break this down into list form to reveal just how devastating this constant change up to the status quo truly is:
1. The more events there are, the less each event means, and the less impact each event has on the reader. This is known in economics as the law of diminishing returns, and comics are perhaps the perfect example of this. Yes, the first time a character we thought was dead came back was really awesome. The second time it was still pretty cool, but not quite as cool as the first, since now we know it’s possible and can’t therefore be as surprised by it. Now, it’s happened so many times that any character death is meaningless, since we all know that unless its a side character that no one really likes, the odds are good there will be an event bringing him back from the dead soon enough (see recently: the Human Torch). By having these types of events be such a constant in your world, it’s hard to take any one of them as this “big thing”. It just feels standard by this point. Which isn’t helped when…
2. Writers tend to run out of ideas for these kinds of things. Do you know how many times the Avengers have fought the X-Men in comics? I can’t tell you off the top of my head because the number is just too dang high, but I can assure you, it’s a lot. The two groups have different ideologies, and those differences have been explored time and time again. Yet after the mediocre Fear Itself event in 2011, what did Marvel decide to do for 2012? Why, Avengers vs. X-Men of course! Having to read stories that we’ve already seen a dozen times isn’t actually interesting. Yes, new readers may not have seen it, but those stories are still there and able to be read. You can pay homage to the past without copying it explicitly. And before you think this is a Marvel problem, I should point out DC’s next event is called Trinity War…which is a fight between the three Justice Leagues. Clearly, no one has learned anything. This lack of innovation leads to some really boring stories, and you can tell that many writers are just going through the motions. This wouldn’t be that big of a problem, except…
3. Everyone is pulled from what they’re doing to work on this stuff. I hate to seem like I’m picking on Marvel, but their Civil War event in 2005 was the one that got us to where we are now, so I have no real choice. See, that story was interesting and explored characters in new ways (flawed as it was, I still enjoyed it), but it also introduced the idea that each character involved should have a side book dedicated to a different aspect of the story, meaning that whatever was going on in certain character’s books had to be stopped so that everyone could work on this one event. This greatly limits the creativity of these character’s writers, because they are now forced to keep in line with what’s going on elsewhere, and they have limited opportunities to explore what they find interesting about the series. It’s really a mess. And recently, it’s gotten completely out of control. DC’s Brightest Day event had 120 comics under its banner. 120 comics purely dedicated to this one event, which, to be honest, wasn’t all that great. The main two books made up 48 of those comics. Had they been self contained, that’s another 72 comics that could have been used for other things. Like, for example, stopping the fourth problem -
4. Characters lose the chance to grow in their own direction. Now, before you freak out and yell at me in the comments, I am by no means saying that characters don’t grow from big events. But that said, for event comics to work, characters have to be at a certain place in their psychology and personal growth. Since event comics so often lead into the next one, that means minimal changes can be made between one event and the next, which limits the overall potential of the character. And if that character isn’t a main focus and not really given a chance to grow or change, this could easily lead to stagnation. Either that, or writers just ignore growth altogether since…
5. Not everyone knows how to write certain characters. Greg Pak is a great Hulk writer, but in his issues with other heroes, it became clear that he didn’t have a great mastery of what made heroes like Iron Man or Thor so special. Of course, he didn’t have to; he wasn’t being paid to write about those characters. But suddenly, you throw him into an event comic, and he’s stuck writing characters that don’t really click with his particular style, and let’s face it: no one can possibly remember every minute detail of every book in a given universe. So they get things wrong, or things are retconned, or it just becomes a stale mess as only a select few characters are allowed to express their full character, as those are the only ones that particular writer knows. And finally -
6. Readers can no longer trust what they’re reading. I mean, honestly, it’s hard for me to look at the mess of continuity and say that it’s worth the effort of figuring out what’s going on only for things to change in a month or two anyway when the “next big thing” happens. DC has rebooted elements of their universe so many times you can almost set a watch to it. Do I recommend that people read the older stuff having no idea if it will ever return? Do I tell them to skip it and run the risk that all of Flashpoint is undone in a couple years, making everything they’ve read essentially meaningless? And why should this be an issue to begin with? This is DC’s biggest problem, and the big reason I no longer read most of their books. They have some great writers (Geoff Johns, Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Josh Fialkov are my five, though not necessarily in that order), but there’s so little that can be depended on hanging around in the long run that it’s really difficult to stay invested.
That said, Marvel isn’t all that much better. The constant events remind me in a bad way of a Michael Bay movie (and trust me, you don’t want to get me started on Michael Bay). There’s a whole bunch of action, but not a lot of substance. Big things supposedly happen, but they no longer feel big because they’re happening all the time. It’s a shame since they also have some pretty good writers, but on the whole, it’s hard to recommend.
Now, this isn’t mean to be a condemnation of comics as a whole nowadays. As editor of the Red Shirt Crew, I’ve been reading a lot more Dark Horse comics recently, and I’ve greatly enjoyed quite a few of them. Comics are going to be fine as long as talented writers and artists continue to make them.
That said, Marvel and DC can attribute any success they have left to their movies (and DC doesn’t really even have that anymore). Both companies have a big problem by lacking any sense of status quo, and I can’t help but believe this will come back to haunt them in the future. Of course, I’m still reading, so maybe all of my negativity is for naught. Let me know in the comments below whether you think I’m just crazy, or if I’m onto something. And next time, we’ll take a look at the mysterious world of Kickstarter.