Sunday, November 21, 2010

When Killing Spider-Man is Your Best Idea, You're Out of Ideas

Okay, I'm going to level with you here: the main reason for this post is to break up the monotony of Minimate custom posts. If I'm not careful, this blog will devolve into nothing more then a home for them... and we don't want that, do we? I'm more then just a Minimate customizer. I've got thoughts, feelings, opinions that should... nay, must be shared, for the good of society.

On the other hand, I suppose I also post Sporcle quizzes, so... ah, I've already started typing. Might as well keep going.

The biggest problem in comics these days (not the only problem, mind you, but the biggest) is that the companies rely too much on stunts and gimmicks rather then good solid storytelling to sell comics. Now, I'm not saying that good solid storytelling has disappeared, but rather that books don't succeed or fail because of their quality. I can't tell you the amount of comics that have come and gone recently that everyone seems to like, but can barely sustain a readership above 20,000 copies a month and are thus canceled within two years. The reasons for these failures are varied, I'm sure, but basically it all boils down to a matter of perception. Books that don't "matter" don't sell, period, regardless of quality.

I put "matter" in quotes there because, well, it's just comics. Nothing really matters. I remember Valiant Comics once referring to an issuer (Rai #0, if memory serves) as "the lynchpin of history". Which was a great little line, but ultimately meaningless, particularly after Valiant went bankrupt. Hyperbole has become such the norm in trying to sell comics that it's just a bunch of empty calories. I recently read a Marvel solicitation that referred to "legendary artist Barry Kitson". Really? Legendary? No offense to Barry Kitson; he's perfectly fine. But I doubt anyone's writing ballads about him.

Hyperbole... I keep expecting people to become numb to it, and maybe they are. Maybe that's why readership is falling so precipitously; people just get sick of all the hype, month after month, and just stop reading altogether. Each subsequent stunt and gimmick does worse then the one that preceded it, and overall sales fall, forcing the publishers to rely more on stunts and gimmicks.

Which finally brings me around to what I want to talk about today: Marvel's announcement this week of their latest gimmick, "the Death of Spider-Man". Now, don't get too excited: it's not really Spider-Man that's dying. It's Ultimate Spider-Man, a bait-and-switch worthy of your local nightly news. Just for fun, here's some copy from the press release, and one I made up: "...the groundbreaking new story that forever changes the Ultimate Comics universe..."; "...this is the story that no comic fan can afford to miss ..."; "...he one thing that could be bigger than the CREATION of the Ultimate line..."; ...should be up there with the very small number of events that really mattered."

Good lord. Coming on a little strong there, don't you think? I guess they could have said "if you don't buy this comic, your entire fucking life will have been pointless", though I think that's implied. Or am I inferring?

The Ultimate Comics line, I think, makes a fine case study for what's ailing comics. Begun in 2000, the Ultimate Universe was designed by Marvel as a way of rebooting their characters without blowing up the regular Marvel Universe. Characters were modernized; whereas regular Spider-Man was a chemestry whiz, Ultimate Spider-Man was a computer prodigy. Continuity anchors were shucked, allowing creators to tell stories without worrying about having to make their work jibe with decades of history.

And it was a big deal. The Ultimate titles (Spider-Man and the X-Men) sold very well right out of the gate, and subsequent books were all hits, with the peak probably being Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's the Ultimates (aka Ultimate Avengers). Hell, even Ultimate Fantastic Four was a big seller, something that can't be said about the regular book since John Byrne left in 1986.

Personally, I was never a big fan. The whole thing seemed a little pointless, since much of the Ultimate line seemed dedicated to rehashing storylines that had occurred in the Marvel Universe over the course of it's forty-odd years. I read the first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, and thought it was terrible. But I was clearly in the minority, and readers and talent flocked to the Ultimate books. At one point the Ultimate version of Marvel Comics seemed so much more popular then the regular one that it seemed to me replacing the latter with the former made a lot of sense.

But it was not to last. I can't say when it happened, exactly, but at some point Marvel seemed to focus all the attention they'd given to the Ultimate line back to the regular universe, and the fans followed. Here's the funny thing about Marvel Comics: they are by far the dominant publisher in American comics, but they only seem to be able to get their fan base really behind one area of their line at a time. In the '90's, it was the X-Men and their fifty billion spinoff titles (a conservative estimate), and everything else played second fiddle. For a while there, it was the Ultimate books, and now it's the core Marvel Heroes books carrying the standard. And I can't really say why this is, except to take it back to the earlier point about stunts and gimmicks. It's almost as if Marvel says "these are the books that we're focusing on; these are the ones that matter", and readership blindly follows.

Marvel tried to reignite the Ultimate line a couple years ago, cancelling all the core titles and running a stunt series called "Ultimatum". Even by the dubious standards of "event" comics, Ultimatum was a critical disaster. Written by Jeph Loeb, comics' answer to Michael Bay, Ultimatum both sold very well and killed off any lingering interest in the Ultimate line, as well as a score of characters. The core titles were relaunched with new numbering, but Ultimatum was so poorly received that much of the readership used it as a jumping-off point, and even formerly solid sellers struggled to regain their pre-Ultimatum sales numbers.

Ultimatum and its' high body count apparently weren't the sign of ultimate desperation (yes, pun intended. I think it's rather clever) it seemed. No, that's certainly "the Death of Spider-Man". Well, just think about the Marvel Universe- any Marvel Universe- without Spider-Man around. Who would want to read that? Whatever momentary sales boost the related titles will receive from the curious will be undone by the absolute collapse of post-Spider-Man sales. I've no doubt we'll be reading a lot in six months about how "exciting" an opportunity it is to tell stories without Spider-Man around; I also have no doubt we'll be reading about the end of Ultimate Comics this time next year.

Of course, in saying that, I'm making the probably foolish assumption that he's going to stay dead. After all, why wouldn't he? It's just Ultimate Spider-Man. Who cares?


  1. You sir, have just become my new best friend. I agree with everything you said about the whole event comics! But I'm one of those fans who LOVED Ultimate. I read the first volumes of Spider-Man, X-men, and Ultimates and was so hooked it became my preferred Marvel universe over 616. Then Ultimatum happened and my interest wasn't just killed. I wanted to gather ever single Ultimate book I ever collected, pile them up out back, and light them on fire. I was so patently disgusted by Ultimatum and how the writers so callously killed off these iconic and compelling characters (some of them OFF PANEL) that now I take every chance I get to bash Ultimate. It's the entire reason why I've resorted to writing my own fanficition series to fill a void called X-men Supreme. You KNOW you've been jaded when you resort to fanfiction.

    The death of Ultimate Spider-Man has to be a sign of desperation that Ultimatum DID NOT WORK. And if Marvel thinks a gimmick like this will save Ultimate, they're fucking stupid.

    Thanks again for your insight! You are right on all counts and I hope someone at Marvel realizes that shit like Ultimatum does not work well with fans. And threatening to kill an iconic character after having already killed so many is more yawn-inducing than exciting. Nuff said!

  2. Great headline, and too true. Too often are the bigger companies going "event-driven-gimmick" to sell books, and any "death" of a mainstream character feels like a desperate cash grab before the company reboots it's lines. For once I'd like to read a story that actually changes things like the discovery of the multi-verse, infinity gauntlets, or consequences that last longer than 6 months. The House of Ideas is empty.

  3. I have to admit, that headline is something of a happy accident, and the House of Ideas connection never occurred to me. I was somewhat desperate to finish this up and post it, because my daughter was waking up from her nap, which is also why it ends rather abruptly. Sometimes it's better to be lucky then good, right?

  4. This article is filled with falsehoods. There are 100 billion X-Men spinoffs not 50. That's why I simply stop caring about the X-Men titles because it became too much work and it simply didn't matter. Not to mention, I think television and film kind of killed the X-Men product. Does it really matter? I don't think so. By the way, I thought killing Captain America was a great idea until they decided to bring him back.

    Love this article. Hopefully some one at Marvel is reading.

  5. The Ultimate Line should have been kept to ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, ULTIMATE X-MEN, THE ULTIMATES and ULTIMATE MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS. Too many ongoings and mini-series destroyed the core concept and the writing was on the wall: exploitation killed another good thing in comics. ULTIMATUM should have ended the entire line, paving way for an all-new, all-different Ultimate line.