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Apocrypha Entertainment Presents:








 

THE SOUR SMELL OF SUCCESS

We all want success in our lives. Whether it’s on the job, or in a relationship, or as a parent, success is what people strive for. It’s the mark of hard work gone right, of practice and planning coming to fruition. Success drives us. It haunts us until we achieve it.

Publishers are no different. Each publisher that puts out a comic or graphic novel is praying for it to be successful, whether it’s an indy company producing their first book or a mainstream entity launching a huge crossover event. Success equals money; success equals continued existence in the marketplace. But here’s a cold, hard fact: success doesn’t always equal continued excellence. Far too often, it equals future disaster. The question is: why?

The answer: because you’re supposed to learn from success and use that knowledge to grow the success in intelligent fashion. But as we’ve seen over the last few years, that simply isn’t the case. Instead, success breeds stupidity, bad decision making, and greed. Incomprehensible choices. And most of all: contemptible arrogance.

Let’s start with DC. Dan DiDio’s editorial regime had truly begun to make some solid inroads in their storytelling and universe cohesion through 2004 and 2005, making the company’s overall product readable and compelling again. Along the way, we got their first three bullets: IDENTITY CRISIS, INFINITE CRISIS, and 52. Winners across the board, whether you agree with the content (IDENTITY CRISIS in particular) or not. The fanbase was riveted by the stories and motivated every week to go to their local shop and buy a ton of comics.

With 52, suddenly it was proven that a weekly book, coordinated tightly and written by the company’s best and most freethinking writers, was viable. It also had a tight focus, checking in on only a few heavy-continuity-free storylines (and stories featuring reasonably well-known characters), making the book easy to follow. A huge, huge success by any standard, sales generally ran near the six-figure level for 52 straight issues, which was nothing short of miraculous.

IDENTITY CRISIS and INFINITE CRISIS were both crossover events tied to the deaths of beloved characters (Sue Dibny, Blue Beetle, and eventually Superboy) but kept the stories on a level that was accessible and human, no matter how much the drama grew. Correlation: they sold like nobody’s business, exploding off the shelves. Ergo, we saw them turn out successful, and in a big way.

So what did DC and DiDio learn from these successes? Apparently nothing, because they pissed away the goodwill from it all in one smooth shot. A shot called COUNTDOWN.

COUNTDOWN. Another weekly book. But instead of that tight focus using their best writers, it came out as something quite different. It opened up with stories on D-list characters… and Jimmy Olson. The stories were so deeply steeped in continuity that it could choke a new reader. The writers brought in to service the book were all good writers in their own right (I'm a big fan of Jimmy P. and Justin's work, for instance), but not the “A” team. And they were given a lot less free reign to tell their stories; now it much more heavily editorially-directed. In short: COUNTDOWN was a mess right out of the gate, and it lacked any sense of individual "touch" from the writing staff. It took two issues for me to start thinking of it as CRAPDOWN, and as soon as I could drop it off my pull list, it went away.

And harkening back to the other successes? COUNTDOWN was steeped in death from the start, picking off characters right and left, not to mention the storyline corrupting one of the last “pure” heroes on DC’s roster, Mary Marvel. Apparently the thinking was “one beloved death sold 150K books; if we do that or more every issue for 52 issues, maybe we’ll double sales!” Then you throw in the way that the company has diluted the CRAPDOWN brand with numerous miniseries bearing the name and some barely related tangential story and you just have to shake your head. Horribly stupid decision making at work. DC took everything they learned from their successes and determined what the lesson was… and missed the point entirely. And even though the book continues to sell, it can only be considered the smallest of victories- the bleeding sales across the company’s line of books aptly demonstrates the ultimate effect this course of action has caused.

Of course, Marvel’s actually done much worse by itself. Over the past few years, the editorial direction of the company has made DC look like a group of Einsteins. Only by the fact that they’re Marvel have they continued to dominate the sales charts. Having a rabid, ass-kissing fanbase who’ll swallow whatever Kool-Aid they’re given sees to that. But sales aren’t always the measure of success… or intelligent decision making.

Look, I don’t want to get deep into the merits of things like ONE MORE DAY or CIVIL WAR. That isn’t the point. I’d rather hark back a bit to the pre-Joe Q era. Bob Harras was in charge, meaning, really, that the Marketing department was in charge, and the company was dying. Maybe not on the verge of death, as they were still selling, but on the creative side Marvel was on life support. Then came the deal that changed the course of comics. The owners of Event Comics, Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada, were given their own “imprint” to run at Marvel, and it was called Marvel Knights. Oh, did that turn out to be a good idea: the books used top-flight creators to tell high-quality stories, and they sold like hotcakes.

Hollywood writer Kevin Smith breathed new life into DAREDEVIL with Joe and Jimmy on the art. THE PUNISHER was resurrected (twice), the second time in stunning fashion by Garth Ennis. Christopher Priest and Mark Texieira turned the BLACK PANTHER into a bonafide captivating and kick-ass hero. They boys from Event had the magic touch. So when it came time to replace the execrable Harras, the higher-ups at Marvel knew precisely where to look, and they grabbed one half of the Event duo. Smart decision.

Quesada, along with Bill Jemas from the corporate side, resuscitated Marvel from a creative standpoint, and you can’t deny it. Joe played the part of the good cop, bringing in the best talent and offering a common sense approach to most issues. Jemas, on the other hand, was the bad cop; he mouthed off in public, occasionally insulted the fans, women, and comics journalists, and generally painted a huge target on his chest and invited people to start shooting. All the while, that allowed Quesada to do his work in putting out great books.

A huge part of the sales jump they got was from their use of Hollywood screenwriters who wanted to do comics. Smith was first, but Straczynski followed shortly after. Then came the god-awful Ron Zimmerman, the first sign of a crack in the armor. Now, you can’t pick up a Marvel comic without running into a Hollywood guy (or a novelist for that matter). Joss Whedon, Marc Guggenheim, Chris Gage, Allan Heinberg, Bob Gale, the list goes on. One of the latest running books in Marvel history has become ULTIMATE HULK/WOLVERINE from LOST co-creator Damon Lindeloff.

So there lies one of the success lessons that Marvel completely choked on. One Hollywood writer equaled big money, so they slowly began kicking longtime comics creators to the side and employing more people who couldn’t hit a deadline if it stood in front of them and taunted them about having sex with their mothers.

Ultimately (no pun intended), though, the Jemas/Quesada pairing worked and was successful. But as Jemas’ bad cop act grew a little too out of control and the pairing ended, it left Quesada without his “check and balance.”

Sure, Dan Buckley is there behind the scenes performing much of the same functions, but it isn’t the same. Joe isn’t required to be the voice of sanity, drowning out a madman anymore. He’s now the creative king, and there’s seemingly no advisor telling him that he’s sent the army off on a fool’s errand when it happens.

So the lesson learned from the Jemas/Quesada years of success was that Joe was the primary reason it worked? I never thought I’d ever defend Jemas, but it is increasingly clear over the past three years that Bill was a much bigger part of it than we could have ever guessed. Without someone to battle for sane editorial direction, Joe has stopped allowing that calm voice to guide him when I think he’s needed it most. He’s not going to get it from his writers, that much is certain; as long as the checks come in for the huge sales on garbage material like ONSLAUGHT REBORN, Jeph Loeb is going to keep grinning like the Cheshire cat all the way to the bank. This is as opposed to a time when even Grant Morrison was given at least some strong editorial guidance along the way on his NEW X-MEN. The reigns are no longer attached to the horses the way they used to be.

Which briefly brings us back to ONE MORE DAY, and Straczynski’s public flogging of his own story. Can you imagine that happening during the Jemas era? Would things have ever gotten to that point during those years? The only public fight between a writer and the company during that time (Peter David’s issues with a price raise on CAPTAIN MARVEL) was still only a mild little thing, not a bashing of the company’s biggest crossover of the year which the writer himself wrote!

Marvel’s creative rebirth in the 2000s was the work of a brilliant combination of an extremely talented creator and a mouthy madman. The pair treated the company like it was the Depression Era U.S. and they were FDR. It was one big WPA project, and it came out pretty. But without one of the two pillars it was built on, the building has begun crumbling around the edges, even if some of the interiors are still quite nice. That’s what happens when you learn the wrong lessons from your success.

We’ve been fortunate to have thousands of you stop by and read our first couple of issues, and I’m very grateful for it. So far, the new CWR is a success, and about as good a one as I could have hoped for. So let me share the first lesson I’ve learned. Just because we’re doing well here on the web, doesn’t mean I’m going to put us in print. Our friends at COMIC FOUNDRY have gone that route, and they’re best suited for the job (did you pre-order your copy of issue two? I did.) We’re comfy here, and our place is here. And we’ll be here… every two weeks. I hope you will be, too.

See you next time!

Marc Mason

 



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