Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Article 10: Final Analysis

In the last Article 10, Paul O'Brien reflects on five years of comics commentary in changing times, the origins and intentions of the column, and the dismal future faced by superhero fans.
19 June 2006

They took off Spider-Man's mask last week. You may have heard. It got coverage on the BBC News website. The journalist is clearly thrilled to be spending his time writing about such an important issue. His article ends with these words:

"The second issue of the seven-part Marvel: Civil War series [sic] is out this week. It follows a recent announcement by Marvel's rivals DC Comics that Batwoman is to return as a crime-fighting lesbian."

How touched I was by that announcement. I've always said that if you're going to treat lesbian characters just like everyone else, there's no better way of going about it than to put out a press release screaming, "LOOK, EVERYONE! LESBIANS!!!"

This is the final update for Ninth Art, and my final Article 10 column. Obviously it's a terrible shame that I won't have the opportunity to share my thoughts on stories as critical and newsworthy as the two above. But somehow I imagine I'll muddle by.

I've been writing this column for five years now. When I sat down to write the first one, I considered doing some sort of manifesto. They were very fashionable at the time. However, it didn't take me very long to figure out that it was a terrible idea. I'd overlooked a crucial point: I don't have a manifesto.

Manifestos are for campaigners, and people who want to change things. God bless these plucky, angry souls. They can be incredibly irritating, but without people like that, nothing would ever get done. They give the rest of us something to write about. But I've never been one of them, and I never will be.

I write about comics because they're interesting. Because I like taking them apart and seeing how they work - or don't work, as the case may be. It's fascinating in its own right. But it doesn't mean that I have an urge to crusade for comics to go in any particular direction, or to promote them to an indifferent mainstream audience. Many campaigner types seem to have trouble getting their heads around that, but there are plenty of us who find comics intriguing without feeling driven to go out and change anything. There are so many other things in the world to be passionate about and... let's face it, it's only comics.

On top of that, I'm primarily a genre fan, something that I've always been perfectly clear about. The genre in question happens to be the dominant one in North American comics, but it's a genre nonetheless. Many readers in my position are certainly open to other types of comics, but primarily we're just looking for a good story. We're not devoted fans of the medium itself - something that a lot of commentators appear to have real difficulty understanding. In a way it's a curious inversion of the 'comics aren't just superheroes' riposte. Of course comics aren't just superheroes, so why on Earth do people assume that the average superhero fan somehow ought to find other comics appealing, and bear some sort of vaguely-defined blame for not liking them?

To the extent that Article 10 ever had a manifesto, it was to provide some sort of hopefully entertaining, passably intelligent commentary on comics from that perspective. When we launched, the Warren Ellis Forum was still around, and The Comics Journal was still largely unreadable to the normal human. If you were looking for any sort of commentary on comics above the level provided by Wizard, chances are it would come with a full complement of shrill, self-righteous, pseudo-revolutionary groupthink. For those of you who may not remember those halcyon days, imagine the Socialist Workers and the Jehovah's Witnesses joining forces to sing the praises of Larry Young, and you have a reasonable idea of what the Warren Ellis Forum acolytes were like. Hugely influential at the time, of course, but an absolute chore to wade through if you didn't share the party line opinions.

Article 10, along with much of Ninth Art, was intended as a reaction to that kind of thing. For the most part, I don't particularly care whether anyone actually agrees with the opinions I've expressed here over the years, as long as they found the columns reasonably interesting. It was never really here to win people over to my point of view. Nor was it intended to preach to the converted.

By now, we're well into a more sensible phase for criticism and commentary. Much as I loathe the term 'blogosphere', there's a lot of good writing to be found there. But the real action these days is in the sphere of manga, which has broken through into the mainstream market in a way that American publishers of all stripes singularly failed to achieve. For those of us who are primarily fans of genre rather than medium, and who aren't particularly excited about the prospect of wading into manga when there are so many novels, films, CDs and DVDs to enjoy first, that leaves us in an interesting position. English language comics are not doing anything particularly important or exciting at the moment. Of course, there are always one or two comics that are worth reading - you could say that in even the worst years - but at the moment, they're the exceptions in a stagnant market.

Most of the major American publishers, after an initial dalliance with trying to reach the manga audience, seem to have virtually given up. The superhero books have retreated to their core readerships, and the indie publishers seem content with their cult audiences and modest bookstore readership. The exception is the producers of OEL Manga (that's 'Original English Language Manga', if you're wondering), who have met with mixed results by publishing acknowledged attempts to clone the Japanese style. But everyone else appears to have thrown in the towel and decided to kill time with some promotional gimmicks while they wait for the next big thing to come along.

Last August I wrote the notorious "bored with comics" column, which turned out to be far and away the most controversial thing ever to appear in Article 10. It provoked some extremely hostile and defensive reactions from people who think that if you're tired of SCOTT PILGRIM, you are tired of life. If anything, the sheer scale of defensiveness rather proved my point. To put it mildly, matters have not improved in the last year. The stink of empty desperation hangs over the industry, and only SCOTT PILGRIM seems to be generating any real excitement among the indie crowd.

No doubt somebody at Marvel thinks that unmasking Spider-Man is a thrilling and bold new direction for the character. Perhaps they'll turn out to be right. But it marks a permanent departure from the basic formula of the title - AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was always based heavily on dual-identity drama and the lead character's everyman status. Occasionally a fundamental deviation from the premise can breathe new life into an ailing concept, and God knows Spider-Man has been ailing for a good ten to fifteen years now. But more commonly it's simply a sign that the creators can't think of anything to do within the format, and have resorted to drastic measures to cover up a shortage of real ideas. In short, it's a sign that the comic has jumped the shark. (See also: abandoning the Daily Bugle as a setting, writing out 99% of the supporting cast, revealing the lead character's identity to Aunt May, moving Spider-Man into Avengers Tower, and anything involving totems. Spider-Man is an unusual franchise; just when you think it's run out of sharks to jump, Marvel unveil a new aquarium.)

But this is the fate of the long-running flagship character, who can't be cancelled for economic reasons, yet whose story possibilities have been largely exhausted. He can continue appearing in stories that repeat the basic formula for new generations - which, to be fair, is happening in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. Or he can fall into the hands of creators who think they can improve on the premise of the series with just a little bit of tinkering... and a little bit more... and a little bit more. It never ends happily for these characters. They can peter out, or they can spectacularly implode, but it all comes to cancellation in the end, with the glory days a hazy memory.

Five years is a good run, and this is as good a time as any to call it a day with Article 10. Hopefully there was something along the way that caught your interest. As for me, it's still daylight outside. I'm going for a drink.

Paul O'Brien is the author of the weekly X-AXIS comics review.

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