Monday, November 15, 2004

As Liberal as Fox News

This entry came from a lot of places, but mostly last week’s brou-ha-ha over Marvel’s upcoming “Combat Zone: True Tales From GI’s in Iraq” series. For the three or four of you who haven’t heard, it seems the imbedded journalist who’s writing the series is also the EIC of “American Enterprise Magazine,” an offshoot of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank with ties to the Bush administration and one of the front-line proponents of the war in the first place. This, along with some apparently high-profile artist walk-offs, has led some to suppose that the series will be little more than a “US good, terrorists bad” propaganda piece. A great number of discussions have popped up online since professional busybody Rich Johnston broke the story; my personal favorite has been on Gail Simone’s You’ll All Be Sorry board at the forums. The major thesis from thread-starter Briareos has been that the comics industry (fans and pros alike) is full of knee-jerk liberals who refuse to accept even a hint of conservative leanings in their comics, and are trying to get the series killed. I got a real kick when one guy opined that liberal think-tank wouldn’t have to subsidize arch-liberal comics, because plenty of creators would jump at the chance to make such comics for free. Apparently, I’m trying to break into the wrong industry, if its employees are willing to work for no money.

Now, I don’t know how much of the suppositions about the series are true, and I don’t much care; given the quick folding of Marvel’s last real-life heroes series, The Call, I doubt this will make much of a blip on the industry. Certainly, fandom at large seems to be more concerned with the ongoing ramifications of “Identity Crisis” and “Avengers Disassembled” than anything that’s happening in the political arena. But I have to laugh at the notion of the modern American comics industry as a haven for liberals.

Oh, sure, there are plenty of liberal creators; Peter David and Tony Isabella have never balked at showing their allegiance, Jim Lee gave an impromptu anti-Ashcroft speech at San Diego Comic-Con this year, and if you don’t know where Grant Morrison stands, you haven’t been paying attention. Fandom is more evenly split; I’ve seen people from both sides. (That assumes there really are just two sides, when the real figure is more like a Cosmic Dodecahedron.)

But when it comes to the medium we love so dear, American comics fans are achingly conservative.

You don’t even have to look at the fervently negative reactions to IC, AD, and the recent Green Arrow HIV issue. Just go down to your local comics store (if you can find one; we’ve made them a bit rare in the past decade) on Wednesday and take a look at the new releases. I dare you, I double-dog *dare* you, to find five original, American-produced works that aren’t in the 32-page, single-story stapled format. The singles, or, as they’re known by their critics, “floppies.”

Now, I’ve got nothing against singles. As you’ll note looking at my reviews, pretty much my entire weekly intake is singles. Publishers can keep making them until the sun grows cold, and I’ll keep buying them.

But is this all there is? Month after month from the big two-to-five, it’s the same thing: series, minis, the occasional OGN. There is no such thing as experimentation with format in mainstream American comics. Hell, there’s not much experimentation in the so-called independent market either; head over to Top Shelf or Fantagraphics, and you’ll find pretty much the same three formats; it’s just the proportions that are switched.

It can’t all be blamed on the publishers, either. About a month ago, Marvel tried a little experiment: It would ship one half of all its orders on The Ultimates Vol. 2 #1, the most anticipated project of the year, in a black-and-white “sketch variant.” Same cover price, same story, just no colors on half the books.

You’d have thought they asked the retailers to eat a live baby. Within a week, the percent of variants was lowered to one in ten. The reason: virtually every retailer expressed fears that readers would view the black-and-white books as less desirable, pass them right by to pick up the colored version, and leave them hanging with 50,000 unsalable books. Online comments seemed to bear this hypothesis out. The message to Marvel was clear: With a few exceptions, readers and retailers don’t want anything but the same product in the same format, month after month. Experimentation in a creative field? Not in my back yard.

Going further back, Crossgen tried its “Forge” and “Edge” series, which were essentially anthology books reprinting their monthlies in a “Shonen Jump” format. It should be noted that “Jump” is one of the best-selling comics in the world, and routinely beats the pants off of US books outside of the direct market. Well, I don’t think I have to tell you that that experiment well and truly tanked. Part of it was first rumblings of Crossgen’s coming implosion, but a large deal of it was also due to the books being underordered and underbought. They never had a chance.

Don’t even get me started on the lack of diverse subject material in the mainstream, either. Just take a look at the numbers for books like “Runaways” and “Fallen Angel” versus “Superman/Batman” and “Astonishing X-Men.” Fans may talk a big talk about wanting new, fresh ideas, but when those ideas actually happen, they suddenly have better things to spend their money on.

Comics are one of my great loves, a medium I’m proud to be a part of, even if it’s just as a consumer. The comics industry is exciting, always changing, and loads of fun to follow. But liberal? Gimme a break.

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