In comics, 'no news' is most certainly not good news. As the same writers keep churning out the same work for the same crossovers, Paul O'Brien takes the temperature of a stagnating industry.
15 August 2005

Bored yet?

I am. God, I'm bored. Every couple of weeks I sit down to write one of these columns, and I ask myself: what's the comics industry been doing lately that was interesting? Or, if not actively interesting, at least not totally dull? If something genuinely exciting has happened, I tend to remember it and write about that. If not, I search the news sites in case something moderately worthwhile has slipped my mind. You never know.

This has not been a vintage year for comics news, to put it mildly. Pop quiz: what was the most exciting thing to happen in comics in 2005? No checking.

No, me neither. Not only is this one of the least eventful years in comics that I can remember, but what little is happening tends to be simultaneously depressing and dull. Big shifts in the industry? Not really. Major publishers going bust? Well, I suppose if you can bring yourself to care about DreamWave. Big new launches? Not really. Unless you count ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN, which sold a ton of copies but was utterly mediocre and seems to have been greeted with a collective bored shrug.

The continued success of manga? Perhaps, but it's hardly a 2005 story. It's just the same trend that's been going on for years, continuing along the same course. It's become part of the landscape now. The novelty phase is over, and even the most hardened traditionalists seem to have given up on the idea that it's just a bubble.

'This has not been a vintage year for comics news.' Creative trends, then? Hardly. It's not like the year that widescreen broke through. It's not like the year that Jemas and Quesada shook up Marvel. Hell, it's not even like the year when everyone was buying 1980s toy adaptations. There hasn't even been a surprise breakthrough hit or a big new creator. If there's a theme at all, it's the grim resurgence of crossovers. If you're watching the big American publishers, then god help us, that is the theme of 2005.

More crossovers, more events, more of the same. A step back to the mid-nineties. More conservatism, less experimentation, more shameless milking of the bozos who buy multiple covers. You can have your crossover in a thousand interlocking parts at DC, or you can do it Marvel-style with a bunch of tie-in miniseries where nothing of importance happens, and a core miniseries where nothing happens, period. But you shall have your crossover. The big storytelling trend of 2005 is... less interesting comics. Wonderful. It's arguably an important trend, but it's one to get depressed about, not excited.

To be fair, it's not as if there's been a precipitous plunge in the quality of comics. It's just all so stale. We've seen it all before. Look at the workhorse writers - people like Brian Michael Bendis, Jeph Loeb, Mark Millar, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and so forth. All talented people. All good at what they do. But god, how many comics do they churn out each month? And when did you last pick up one of their stories and think "Hey, that's an interesting new direction for him"? It's all so familiar. We know their tricks by now.

'The theme of 2005: More crossovers, more events, more of the same.' Bendis - and I'm digressing here - has suffered particularly badly from this over-familiarity. There's been something of a backlash against him this year. In part that's because of 'Avengers Disassembled', which was nothing short of dreadful, and in part it's because of his stubborn refusal to acknowledge its flaws. But for the most part, at least when he isn't trying to do action movies, Bendis' work is up to the same standards as ever. Yet he's a writer with a very distinctive style, and some very noticeable tricks, which he uses again and again, such as his trademark pseudo-natural dialogue. How many times can you read this stuff before it gets stale?

Artists don't have the same problem with overexposure, since practical considerations ensure that only the exceptionally prolific produce more than 12 books a year. Even so, it feels like we've been reading basically the same people producing basically the same comics in basically the same style for a good few years now - with perhaps a gradual drift in the direction of conservatism. It's not easy to get excited about this stuff when we've seen it so many times before.

It is round about now that people start saying, "Ah, but you should be reading manga. That's where the action is".

On one level this is true. Manga has carved out a completely parallel market to the established American publishers. It's pretty much squeezed the locals out of the bookstores. It's proved that it's possible to reach a more mainstream audience who don't buy comics - something that tends to suggest that Marvel and DC have been barking up entirely the wrong tree all these years, but neither of them really seems willing to accept the full implications of that.

'We've been reading the same people producing the same comics in the same style.' So, sure, yes. Manga is logically bound to be a huge influence on the development of English language comics over the next few years, even bigger than it has been in the past. It'll influence the marketing and it'll influence the content. It is, by all logical standards, where the action is.

Unfortunately, I have no interest in reading it.

It's not that I have anything against manga. It's simply that, psychologically, I don't regard myself as a manga fan. I approach it as a wholly separate area that I'd be entering from scratch. And honestly, I don't have the time or inclination to do that. I've got a ton of books, CDs and DVDs to plough through already. Like a lot of more mainstream comics fans, I'm here primarily because I'm a genre fan rather than because of a devout love of the theoretical possibilities of the medium.

That isn't to say I'm not open to other types of comics, but it does mean I don't have the sort of "this is a comic, I must explore it" attitude that leads others to try and read their way into manga. I'm sure a lot of it is absolutely fantastic, but I could say that about my local bookstore too, and I've got a ton of books that are higher up my list of priorities because... well, I actually want to read them already.

For those of us who aren't interested in decamping to a completely distinct part of the medium, this is a spectacularly boring year. A year of the old, the conservative and the stale. Oh, except for Grant Morrison, who may have a strong personal style but at least continues to work new ideas and new experiments into his output. He's still reliable, and while SEVEN SOLDIERS isn't his best work, it's still easily one of the highlights of a bad year. And yes, of course there's always a number of decent indie books. You can say that every year. That can be taken for granted.

Otherwise... well, what am I meant to be excited about, exactly?

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