I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Sign of the Apocalypse

I'm not sure if anyone notice earlier this month when the world was knocked slightly further atilt on its axis. Perhaps the world didn't shake for you, but it did for me.

On March 9, I walked into my local comic book shop and canceled all my subscriptions.

Now, to the non-geeks out there in the world, this is probably not a momentous statement. But I've been reading comic books faithfull for thirty years--three quarters of my life. I've been subscribing in some format or another for over half my life. I love comics, and have accumulated an enormous heap of the things, mostly gathered in neat rows of white boxes. There is no spot in my house where it is possible to sit down and not be within arm's reach of a comic book.

Several trends brought me to this place. First and foremost was economics. Comic books routinely cost about $3 a pop now. Special issues or "event" comics like the JLA/Avengers cross-over can cost $6 or $7 each. There was a time in the early nineties where I was following close to thirty titles--doing that today would cost me over $100 a month. Story lines in comics have swollen in recent years--a story arc lasting 6 issues is routine. A year is common. And DC just started a storyline reintroducing the Seven Soldiers that they proudly tout as running for 30 issues. Reading the entire story issue by issue will cost close to $100.

Which brings me to an issue of quality. I can't prejudge the Seven Soldiers storyline, but I'm skeptical that the story truly requires 30 issues to tell. One of the things I liked about comics was that they could cram in astonishing amounts of story into a tiny space. You could pick up an issue of Superman from the 1960s, for instance, and it might involve a plot that requires Superman to visit three different planets in the span of three pages--or even three panels. Now, his journey to another planet would take an entire issue, and his visit to the planet might be dragged out over three or four additional issues. I'll be blunt: My attention span isn't that long. More and more I find myself reading comics where I realize I've forgotten why the characters are doing whatever the hell they are doing. Say that Superman has flown to Planet X because it's the only source of a miracle medicine that's going to be save Pa Kent from an alien virus. Well, by the time the story line is in its fourth or fifth month, I'll have forgotten all about poor Pa Kent. So will the writer and the artist. They are now distracted by the alien world. Two issues later, Superman gets back with the medicine and gives it to Pa almost as an afterthought, and I'll be thinking, "Pa was sick? Since when?" There just aren't that many stories that are so compelling that I'll remember the beginning if I'm reaching the end six months later. (Some stories do deserve this space, however--I promise a future post touting some of the best.)

Of course, one thing driving this trend is that comic book storylines are now routinely collected into graphic novels. 6 to 8 issues of a book is about the right length to fill a graphic novel, so storylines swell to fill this length. And, you can read the story in one sitting--I can hold on to almost any premise for an hour. The economics of graphic novels make sense too. Eight issues of an individual comic book cost about $24--a lot of the graphic novels are priced at $12.95. And, the graphic novels are convenient if you want to reread a story--there are comics I'd be interested in rereading, but it would require me digging through my endless boxes to try to reassemble all the issues of the storyline. It's a hassle. Where as the graphic novel just sits neatly on the shelf, no ads, ready to go. And, while I've never considered myself a comic collector, only a comic accumulator, graphic novels, as reprints, require no special care to maintain collectability. You can read these things in the bathtub if you are so inclined. You can break the spines. It doesn't matter--you don't have the dread that the issue you are holding is going to suddenly explode in value ten years from now and you'll have reason to rue getting the pizza sauce on the cover.

It's a very, very rare monthly comic book that still puts out a self-contained issue. Every now and then, the JSA will pull it off with a spotlight issue on a single character. The Flash has some decent single issues every now and then. Tom Strong for a long time kept adventures to a single issue, although there have been more and more multipart stories there lately. Nothing else currently published springs to mind. (I'll also do a future post about single issue epics.) The concept of one issue equalling one story is all but dead in comics. This also means that it is impossible to jump into a series. If you hear buzz that a book you aren't reading has a new artist and writer and is really good, but the story is already three or four months old, it's too late. You'll be completely lost if you pick up an issue in the middle of a storyline, and if the book is "hot," back issues will cost insane amounts. And why bother hunting out back issues? In a year, you can pick up the graphic novel for less than you'd pay for a single collectable back issue.

There have been other trends in comics that have sapped my enjoyment over the years. Too much continuity--storylines that require that you know thirty years of character history in order to make sense of them. Not enough continuity--the willingness of some writers to simply throw out everything that has come before and just start fresh, changing anything they feel like. The fact that the more I enjoy a book seems to translate rather directly into that book being in ever greater danger of cancelation. The list of books I fell in love with only to see cancelled is a long one.

I feel a sense of guilt walking away from comic books. They are a struggling art form, with an aging and declining readership. They need my money. Alas, I feel they've stopped earning it.

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