Last weekend I was a guest at Capclave, a speculative fiction convention in Maryland. I wound up on two panels about superheroes, one about superhero novels and one about superheroes with lame powers, like Stone Boy or Color Kid.
Neither was explicitly about the current state of the comic book industry, but both panels produced similar comments from the audience. Everyone who spoke up hated the comic books being published today, and quite a few people told me that they had finally quit reading DC comics. Attitudes toward Marvel were slightly less bitter, until, interestingly, we reached the topic of the Avengers and lots of people confessed to hating what had happened to the team in comic books while still being thrilled with the movie.
Even the people I talked to who still felt enthusiastic about modern comics admitted they've stopped buying the monthly titles and now wait and read only the collected graphic novels, since the monthly comics are seldom a complete story.
To me, the underlying problem is that, when comic books started gearing themselves toward adult buyers in the 80s, they found a much smaller audience, but an audience with much more money. When I was a kid, I had to ask my mom for a quarter if I wanted to buy a comic book. If I wanted a Superman toy, it was something I had to plead for an hope it might turn up at Christmas or a birthday. Now, you have adults willing to shell out fifty or sixty dollars for an action figure they will never take out of a box. When a new first issue of a title appears, there are comic book fans who will willingly buy three different variant covers, two copies each... since they need a copy to put into a poly bag and without ever actually opening it.
Because of all these adults with the shopping impulses of spoiled rich kids, Superman and other iconic characters have stopped being characters and started being properties. All that matters now is that new product get churned out month after month.
This isn't to say that no good stories are being told with these characters. But, because of the monthly need for new product, any good story is quickly washed away. Suppose that a creative team lands on a comic and takes the title in an exciting new direction; Grant Morrison and Richard Case on Doom Patrol in the 90s, for example. A brilliant run of edgy stories that made the book a hot property. But, Morrison and Case can't write the book forever. So, DC is left with two choices: Find a copycat writer artist team who will continue telling stories just like the popular ones. This was actually tried for a while and the results were fairly lame, because you can't imitate your way to originality. Eventually, the stories get so muddled and messy that readers drift away. But, the title can't be allowed to die an honorable death. Since it's a commodity with a proven market value, it now face the second option: The dreaded reboot. A new creative team comes aboard and wipes away everything that was done before, starting with a blank slate to tell fresh stories. Sometimes, this produces interesting results; after all, that was mostly how Grant Morrison and Richard Cases run had it's start (though they didn't completely wipe away all previous continuity). But, even if the reboot is successful, it hits the same wall: the creative team can only keep the new stuff going for so long, then the title goes back into stagnation or reboot. Eventually, fans get burned out and bitter.
I'm not saying that DC should never publish new Superman stories. But.... maybe it's time for the monthly comic book to pass away. Stop the treadmill of having to churn out stories month after month, year after year. Let time pass between new releases, and use strong editorial discretion to make sure the new releases are actually, you know, good. Take time to get it right.
It's really all up to us geeks. In the end, to save the characters we love... we must walk away from them, and grant our favorite monthly titles the right to die.