Canceled Comics Cavalcade

Posted: January 28, 2010 in comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

I always hate hearing when a comic book doesn’t work out.

This is a response to Kieron Gillen’s Astonishing X-Men spinoff, S.W.O.R.D. and Rick Remender’s reimagining of the Marvel Sorcerer Supreme concept, Dr. Voodoo, both getting canceled with issue 5.

TV shows get canceled left and right, and it can be very frustrating. And when it comes to comic books, it probably should feel the same – a story with lots of potential cut down too quickly – but here’s the difference:

TV shows are usually available for free (oh, shut up, cable viewers, no one was gonna watch Caprica anyway) to millions of people. Comics, meanwhile, have to be sought out by fans willing to pay (at least) $3 for 22 pages of story (give or take) – and be entertained enough that they’re willing to spend the same a month later.

So while millions of viewers have a chance to try out a TV show, for free and of their own volition, to decide whether or not they like it, new comics depend on lone comic book store owners who have to wisely predict what their customers will like and order accordingly – usually before ever seeing a single issue.

Put like that, it’s amazing any comic ever makes it more than three issues.

There’s always a lot of wondering about how to sell a series. Even with a proven creator that the company can make money off of, nothing is a given (for instance, Marvel kinda canceled Warren Ellis’s awesome Nextwave [buy it, you’ll love it, seriously!], even as it publishes a book of his 90’s Excalibur comics – books Ellis has gone on record as “beating the crap writing out of [himself]”).

Here’s a method I assume should work: Publisher puts out a miniseries, and makes it clear to potential readers that if enough of them buy the book, an ongoing series is likely. And move on from there.

It happens frequently. Peter David wrote a miniseries featuring one of his old X-Factor characters, “Madrox,” and the response was positive enough to produce a new X-Factor run which has been going on for a few years now.

“Dr. Who” novel writer Paul Cornell wrote an amusing miniseries with the British mutant spy Pete Wisdom (an Ellis character from Excalibur, if you’re looking for patterns) and it ended up a precursor to a critically lauded Captain Britain and MI:13 series that lasted a little over a year.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. X-Factor is ongoing; Captain Britain got canceled. But in both cases, the initial miniseries announced the presence of these properties, and let the market decide from there.

So why isn’t that the general model? I don’t really understand. Except…

Let’s talk about Dr. Strange. Because I always want to talk about Dr. Strange, since I love the character. As an idea. As an actual, physical comic, the property is incredibly hit-or-miss.

I’ve read quite a lot of the character, by now. The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko stuff, the Englehart revival, Warren Ellis’s beautiful, abortive first issue (and the absolute horror that is reading a mediocre writer try to “do Ellis” with his leftover plots one issue later), and the many miniseries that have followed.

Most recently Mark Waid has written a fantastic four-issue miniseries showing not only that he A) GETS what makes the character interesting, but B) can make the character VIABLE as a long-term storytelling engine.

But because it wasn’t announced from the outset as an ongoing series, Waid’s version of the character (as I’ve previously said, a kind of magician-Doctor Who) will likely disappear into the ether. And that’s because of four words that shatter my brilliantly-simple “Just give us a pilot-story” idea to bits: hardcore comic book readers (AKA: fanboys, but I’m trying to get the word disused because Roger Ebert keeps throwing it out there without really understanding it).

Because when hardcore comic book readers see “four-part miniseries,” what they read is “This doesn’t technically ‘count.’

It’s a quirk of comics readers…oh, fine, fanboys. Because we’ve all been burned so many times before. If a “new direction” for a character isn’t backed up by the promise of an indefinite run to further explore the direction, potential readers assume it doesn’t actually add anything to the larger “story” that is the Marvel Universe.

In other words: “Sure, Stephen Strange is a weakly-powered magician relying on his own wits and the talents of his new apprentice…FOR THESE FOUR ISSUES. But if you can’t promise me this will actually impact the character’s history and future standing in the broader Marvel framework, why should I care? What does it really matter?”

“What does it really matter?” is the question posed to every mini-series that’s ever announced.

If TV producers are worried their pilot episodes will be met with an “Eh, who gives a crap?” shrug, imagine how comic book creators feel.

For instance: Imagine if, after “V” was announced as a fall miniseries, ABC viewers responded, “Well…I don’t see how four episodes will be enough to incorporate it into the greater ‘Lost’ mythology. PASS!”

To wit: Gossip site Bleeding Cool just pointed out that comics superstar Grant Morrison’s take on Wonder Woman – and by the way, this is a guy who has taken it as his mission to make the goofy 60’s-era Superman and Batman stories seem cool and relevant, so…not exactly a hack – will not be utilized in the ongoing Wonder Woman comic. If it does get made, it will be as its own standalone continuity.

Sayeth one forum commenter: “Well, any chance I was going to try Grant Morrison’s Wonder Woman just went flying out the window. If it’s not in continuity – then I just don’t want to bother.”

Now, to be fair, this commenter got a new one ripped for him by the many readers who rightly noted that this is a bullshit stance to take – that in-continuity stories are more important than Good Writing. But it’s important to note that this is an actual mindset of some comics readers:

“I don’t care if it’s good or not – if it doesn’t somehow affect next month’s Green Lantern comic, then I don’t see why I should care.”

Now aren’t you just sad?

  1. braak says:

    I’ve always been baffled by the idea that “in-continuity” stories are somehow more real than “out of continuity” stories, or that Marvel even has a thing called What If?

    I mean, none of these things actually happened. In continuity or not, no one named Peter Parker was ever bitten by a radioactive spider and given spider-powers as a result. How can the story about him being blessed by the spider-totem have more merit than a story about him becoming king of the vampires? THESE THINGS ARE ALL EQUALLY FICTIONAL.

    Partly, Marvel and DC permitted this problem by allowing cross-continuity across their entire lines, instead of maybe just in small groups; the idea has so much momentum now that it’s virtually impossible to break up. DC can’t separate its characters out into their own separate continuities without a UNIVERSE CHANGING EVENT.

    (Or, they kind of can: they did gently break off Swamp Thing and John Constantine into the Vertigo line, which are technically “in-continuity” with the rest of the universe–I guess–but not so’s you’d notice.)

    I wrote a play where I kind of played around with an idea like this; maybe it merits another post. Maybe this is a function of STOCHASTIC AESTHETIC THEORY! (Well, again, obviously it is, because Stochastic Aesthetic Theory explains everything.)

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Yes – even Sandman ran more-or-less parallel to DC continuity, even after it was officially Vertigo.

    “World’s End” is actually a direct response to the “Zero Hour” story going on in regular DC at the time – and sure, it’s a great read, but man, you want to talk about something “not mattering,” and I would imagine four months of “We’re just gonna sit here and tell a few tall tales while our sister continuity is busy obliterating and rebuilding itself – back to the main story in a few months!” didn’t sit well with a lot of readers in 1994.

    (Of course, it was Sandman, and they were probably used to long digressions at this point.)

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    For “Sandman”, I forgave a lot.

  4. […] scenery. And 3) This kinda looks like what I figure a Doctor Strange movie would be like, and I am on record as being a Doctor Strange nut. CON: If you read the last paragraph and thought, “Yeah, but…”, […]

  5. […] I argued earlier that Marvel should just promote long-shot series like these as try-out mini-series, and I still stand by that. If that were the case, Marvel could check out the sales on the […]

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