Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Editorial: Face It, Tiger - The Comic Buyer's Guide

Andrew Wheeler has an unfamiliar experience at the comic store, and gets thinking about the comics that won't always be there, the comics that always will, and how it affects his buying habits.
13 February 2004


I went in to my regular comic shop last week and emerged empty handed. I didn't buy a comic. It was delivery day, and I didn't buy a comic.

This has never happened to me before. A friend of mine who works at the store was mildly perturbed. He'd seen this happen to other customers. He saw it as the first terrible symptom of a disillusionment that could lead to me giving up on comics all together.

"You're not going to become one of those people who thinks he's grown out of comics, are you?" he asked. "Here, why don't you buy a trade? Something classic?"

"No, no. I think I'll just try this for a change," I told him. "See how it feels."

And I did. I left empty handed.

I think I'm still coming to terms with the experience. I used to be a die-hard fanboy. I'm not yet an elitist snob. I don't think I'm actually on that unfortunate, well-travelled path from mutants to memoirs. I don't drink enough coffee to be a Fantagraphics fanatic. I don't even own any jazz on vinyl. I think what it may be is that my buying patterns are slowly coming into synch with my tastes, and I'm finally remembering to only buy the comics I actually want. It's a strange sensation.


Speaking of not having anything to buy, the final issue of CEREBUS will ship soon. I won't be among those suffering withdrawals, though, as I've never yet read an issue.

The original reason for this is that I was intimidated by the sheer size of the undertaking - the effort of writing it had already proved enough to drive a man mad, after all - but now I won't read it because I don't want to start something that I know I'm not going to want to read to the end. I know the book takes a terrible descent into misogyny and pretentiousness, and I don't want to subject myself to that, even if it is an acknowledged landmark on comics' cultural landscape.

CEREBUS isn't the only magnum opus that's wrapping up this year. The last volume of Jeff Smith's BONE will hit the shelves shortly. Charles Burn's highly acclaimed BLACK HOLE should also reach its final chapter before the year is out. Even the third issue of MINISTRY OF SPACE has been solicited, and I think the first issue came out the same month as CEREBUS #1, didn't it? No?

When these books are done, I think their absence will be felt. Well, not MINISTRY OF SPACE, but those other three. They're institutions, even to those who don't read them. Ambassadors for serial comics from some other, more credible dimension. Since no-one in their right mind reads STRANGERS IN PARADISE anymore outside of Wizard writers who want to appear a bit indie, I'm left wondering what will take their place.

There's a few contenders, not all of them self-published. For example, I expect I'll be in my dotage by the time Jason Lutes finishes BERLIN. Eric Shanower's AGE OF BRONZE must have an epic few years left to run. And I'm not sure there even is an ending planned for David Lapham's perennial masterwork, STRAY BULLETS.

The other long players that dominate the shelves tend to come from Vertigo, but the current crop seems to fall a fair way short of the stable's old school. SANDMAN first brought the CEREBUS conceit of the multi-volume opus to the big publishers, and THE INVISIBLES and PREACHER took up the banner and carried it. But attempts by other creators to do the same have tended to stumble a few volumes in, and they never seem to fully recover.

I've been burned this way a couple of times, spending upwards of a hundred dollars on the first few books in a multi-volume series, only to realise that I'm not too keen to pick up the rest. It's a lot of money to gamble, and my confidence in Vertigo has dropped to the point where the gamble rarely seems worth taking. As with CEREBUS, why start something you won't want to finish?

Maybe these series will seem stronger when the whole thing is done and dustable. Maybe you'll only get a fair assessment of books like LUCIFER and 100 BULLETS when they're over. If there are others like me, it could have serious consequences for publishers like Vertigo; Readers who don't just wait for the trade, but who wait for the whole library.


Some books aren't meant to end, of course. They only end when they get cancelled. That's why we call them 'ongoings'. But usually we call them 'superhero comics'.

Ongoing comics aren't led by creators, but by editors, group editors, and editors in chief. That's probably why they generally seem sadder propositions than the works mentioned above. A creator's intention is to tell the best story, while an editor's job is to put together the best product, and the two don't necessarily meet at the same result.

This is the nature of ongoing titles. Creative teams change, even editors change, and everything becomes all new, all different. Change is the only constant, and because it's a constant, you end up with zombie readers who actively hold out for change, sticking with a book through the bad times in the hopes that the good times are just around the corner.

I've long known all this to be true. Yet, like a lot of readers, I allowed myself to be optimistically blindsided by the New Marvel promise of positive, lasting change.

I've been reading Marvel books long enough to know that even when things are looking good, the bad times are just one shift in business strategy away. Even so, some of New Marvel's ideas were good ones, and many of its strategies seemed to be paying off. I thought something would stick. Grant Morrison wouldn't stay on NEW X-MEN forever, but the fact that he was there at all was a sign of Marvel's new commitment to quality storytelling. Marvel was bound to replace him with someone good.

It looks like Marvel is replacing him with Chuck Austen.

The wheel goes around, and nothing changes. We were idiots to think anything would. It's no better at DC, where the winds of change seemed ready to sweep the cobwebs out from between Paul Levitz's ears... and then they put Paul Gulacy on CATWOMAN.

Just as NEW X-MEN was totemic of change at Marvel, CATWOMAN was a symbol of an unfamiliar innovative streak at the Distinguished Competition. Under the stewardship of writer Ed Brubaker and a string of talented artists - Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart, Javier Pulido - CATWOMAN moved away from Bad Girl titillation to become a top class pulp noir. Brubaker is still on board, but with Gulacy on pencils, the book is back in T&A territory, which is fine in principle, but a backward step for DC.

These things too shall pass, of course, and civilisation will continue to stand, but these are bad omens for the industry. It wasn't long ago that the mainstream was showing signs of progress. Now all the promises seem hollow. While DC's Dan DiDio boasts of having made "a creative change on every one of [DC's] monthly books", and Marvel busily renames an X-Men book every time Chris Claremont gets his beard trimmed, the evidence of the books themselves suggests that it's just new suits screwing their nameplates on old office doors. Business as usual. The same old churn.

With the recent passing of Julius Schwartz, I was led to wonder whether today's editors at the Big Two share the same passion that one attributes to men like Schwartz and Archie Goodwin. But it's too easy to blame the editors, and I don't think they're villains for watching their bottom line. The fault lies squarely with the readers. We're the ones who give established books too many chances and new books too few. We're the ones who settle for too little and call it greatness. We're the ones who cling to the familiar and steer the editors away from taking risks.

Perhaps we should all try walking away from the store empty handed a little more often.

Andrew Wheeler is a London-based entertainment journalist.

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