When Is An Event Not An Event (Or Is It)?

So, a comics writer and blogger named Beau Smith recently posted a Busted Knuckles Challenge to Marvel and DC: "Give the readers one full year of stand-alone stories." Complaining (in a lovely analogy) that such recent mega-crossovers as Secret Invasion and Infinite Crisis had made reading mainstream comics "like trying to get into Studio 54 in the 1970's. Marvel and DC don't want new readers and are doing their best to make the long time readers feel confused with event after event, stories where the weight of the dialogue would test the shoulders of Hercules," Smith observed that "Continuous events and crossovers can only enhance a story and characters when it is just that: AN EVENT. When they happen every week they are no longer awe-inspiring. They become mundane and boring to regular readers and nothing short of confusing to someone trying to step into mainstream comics."

Smith's "one-and-done" challenge (offering readers stories that don't rely on reading x-number of different titles a month to understand what's going on) led to a response from talented writer Peter David, who has written for both Marvel and DC (he's probably best-known for runs on Star Trek, The Incredible Hulk and X-Factor, although I have fond memories of his work on various Spider-Man titles in the 80s). David pondered whether or not such a strategy would be financially beneficial to the Big Two, noting that recent attempts at such titles (including some that he had written) had not sold well, and complicating the issue by posing the question/observation: "The harsh fact is that crossovers sell and independent stories devoid of contact or context with each other don't, or at least not as well. Rather than issuing challenges to the companies to change what's working for them, why not issue challenges to the readership to change their buying habits?"

I'm of two minds about this (as usual). On the one hand, I feel for Beau Smith-- there was something nice, in an earlier era of mainstream superhero comics, about the contained (or maybe two or three issue) story, or the miniseries that was self-contained (for some reason, the mini I always picture when thinking of this is the 1984 four-issue West Coast Avengers, which I devoured and which holds up pretty well 24 years later). It allowed brand-new readers to pick up a title in midstream and understand who these characters were and what their adventures were about, while also stimulating enough interest to seek out back issues, if you could afford to do so. I'm enjoying Secret Invasion, but that's because I've been reading various Marvel Comics off-and-on for twenty years; had I come in as a comics virgin, I would feel utterly lost, and certainly would not get the in-jokes and implications of various lines or plot twists. I know this because I tried to read the Infinite Crisis miniseries last year on the recommendation of a student, and-- as someone who knows very little about the DC Universe-- I was completely bumfuzzled. So, yeah, there's definitely the possibility that these mega-crossovers can alienate new readers (which is both annoyingly hipster, and financially dangerous in the long run, if it turns off confused new generations of comics buyers).

On the other hand, David is right to note that these cross-overs do sell, and that in a shrinking marketplace where comics compete heavily with video games for the young (primarily) male dollar, there's a certain logic in catering to the hardcore, mythology-smart fan. I am actually a fan of decompressed narratives, and defended them last year, although I'm not sure decompression across several issues in a single title (most famously in Ultimate Spider-Man) is the same as decompressing against an entire company's summer line. You could argue that there's a self-fullfilling loop to this argument: these comics sell because interested fans have to buy everything just to understand what's happening, and those sales figures in turn justify new cross-overs, which fans buy to understand...etc. It's the comics equivalent of Ann Richards' famous line about George H.W. Bush: "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple"; the success of Secret Invasion, Countdown, etc. is one of marketing as much as art or fun.

Still, there's a third argument here, besides that of economic synergy or artistic fulfillment, and that's one of new media logics: are these company-wide crossovers-- however canny or disappointing-- another example of the Steve Johnson argument? Jeff has blogged about this extensively, and Bradley recently did, too. Riffing on Whitman, Jeff declared, "I sing the body digital," mapping out a form of "Googledentity"that assumes, " we are machines. Machines like Burroughs’ writing machine that is half text half human devouring and copying and appropriating cultural moments and ideas. To me, this is the Googledenity. All your links belong to me. I am the link. In my Googledentity, I link to Sam Malone pretending to read War and Peace so that he might impress Diane. My identity is made up of links. Viral connections. Hubs of information." Johnson's argument in Everything Bad Is Good For You, as I understand it (it's on my list of things to read this summer) is that recent forms of popular culture that are often maligned as dumbing down the culture or making more violent-- television, video games, the web (and we might add comics)-- actually make us smarter by encouraging new forms of cognitive mapping, richer understandings of links, backstories, spacial dynamics, narrative or character arcs, and so on. Jeff often cites Lost as an example of this; I would cite Battlestar Galactica, Alias and Joss Whedon's work, which in very different ways from one another seem to work according to the hypertextual model Johnson seems fascinated by. It's a style of storytelling facilitated by shifts in technology (the rise of the complete season DVD, which allows for easier, quicker viewing and re-viewing, and encourages multi-arc narratives) and economics (niche channels like the WB, HBO, Showtime or Sci-Fi that don't have to get huge audiences but can cater to specific demographics).

In this logic, Secret Invasion and its ilk-- with their multi-title scope, scattered narratives (like weblinks), winks and asides, online-only supplementals and connections that reach back years and even decades into a company's mythological history -- force the reader to become, in Jeff's terms, the hub of information (reading Batman R.I.P. last night, I again felt that sense of "what the hell is happening here" overcome me, but also noticed that every issue had a "checklist," Whitman-style, to tell us which issues would fill in the narrative gaps). He or she then becomes the filter, the more active participant in the vast narrative experiment that Brian Michael Bendis or Grant Morrison is conducting. That word-- both scientific and musical-- suggests both the instability of the project (this whole thing could fail, a la Civil War) and its improvisational qualities (Marvel and DC provide only the musical sketch, and it's up to us to fill it in, to invent our own songs).

What say you, serialized narrative fans? Yay or nay on multi-title/episode/program narrative arcs?


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