Last week saw the release of Marvel’s Secret Empire #1, properly kicking off a line-wide crossover that serves as the culmination of a year long arc over in the Captain America books Marvel is currently publishing. In this arc, original Captain America Steve Rogers has been rewritten by a cosmic force into having been a secret agent of villain organization HYDRA. To say that this hasn’t been well received by some is an understatement: Marvel has had to issue a public statement about the event.
At the same time, DC Comics is currently in the middle of the publication initiative “Rebirth,” which is bringing back various tenants of past DC continuity; but is also building to a reveal that so far seems to indicate that at least one character from the 1980’s classic Watchmen is going to be integrated into the core DC universe. Judging from a lot of response, while Rebirth appears to be going over well-no one really wants this.
This piece isn’t much about the details or backlash of releases like Secret Empire or its creators. A lot of digital ink has been spilled about that, and I’m sure a lot more will. If you do need some of that, I recommend Siddhant Adlakha’s deep dive into the themes of the lead ins to the event, and Kieran Shiach’s less dense but comprehensive breakdown. But to sum it up, if it looks like a Nazi, talks like a Nazi, and acts like a Nazi, it pretty much is a Nazi, and that might not have been the best idea right now.
Instead, I think I might be better served answering a question that always comes up when I try to explain comic book things like this to people: “Why?” The answer is that the history of the comic book industry is just as complicated and occasionally diversive as the characters they publish. This history has shaped the industry in ways that foster controversial storylines, massive upheavals, status quo shifts, and what often is perceived as constant and unyielding crossovers and events. See, the better question to ask is “How did we get here anyway?”
Comics Have To Sell Themselves
The publication of Action Comics #1 properly established the comic book format with the first appearance of Superman. Both this and the comics that preceded it were sold just like pretty much any other print medium at the time-on the newsstand. When superhero comics exploded in the 60’s, every book was competing with each other for the small incomes of children. In order to entice the very important cents of those children, comics relied on the single most reliable thing that could get the attention of that audience-the cover. This led to the creation of covers and stories that could draw eyes immediately, like this:
Admit it, you kind of want to know what’s going on there. These stories are some of the perfect examples of how ridiculous and wonderful comic books actually are. Comics didn’t stop there. Open any early issue of Amazing Spider-Man and you’ll not only be greeting by some in-the-moment event but also a wall of text usually courtesy of Stan Lee giving the reader a synopsis of the issue, written in explicit sales pitch all over the first page to try to sell the youngster on the issue before the clerk shouted at them that wherever they were wasn’t a library and they put the issue back on the shelf. At this point, characters often crossed over and had adventures with each other all the time, it was another good way to get customers immediately interested. Sometimes, two versions of the same character would even team up or fight. The industry would grow and shift in all kinds of ways that would take the medium away from the newsstand-but that mentality that comics always have to immediately sell themselves at full shocking exposure never really went away.
Events on the Horizon
For decades, comics relied on the newsstand model, propped up by licensing deals for television shows and other items. As time passed, the childhood fans of comic book heroes grew up. While adults didn’t proclaim their love in public like today, these fans supported the licensed products and kept buying issues. They were amassing vast, connected collections as books had become more and more serialized and capable of telling long term stories. Before long, these stories had started to become convoluted and complicated-especially for DC Comics, who had to account not only for character histories, but alternate-universe versions of the same characters. This was starting to earn the company complaints about their stories being too complicated to follow.
In the mid 80’s, DC editorial decided to do something about this complication. After a year of sewing clues, they published a miniseries titled Crisis on Infinite Earths, a cross-over of basically the entire DC universe, along with all of its alternates, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. The goal of the series was to bring the concept of a multiverse to a conclusion, which would allow creators more freedom, with the hopes of returning to simple versions of characters. While the series didn’t see a lot of promotion, save for the tagline “The DC Universe will never be the same,” the book performed incredibly well, and renewed interest in DC’s lineup of books. The success of Crisis could easily be attributed to the fact that it is a well written story, one of the bests of its time. However, no one who was involved with the project could have possibly foreseen the impact their story would have on the future. The event comic had been born.
During this same period of time, savvy people saw the potential of new ways to get comics into the hands of customers. New distribution companies began to spring up by cutting deals with the publishers to buy books directly from them as opposed to going through an independent system that would see stores stocked as necessary. There were several advantages to this for both sides. For publishers, this helped mitigate one of the big problems with the actual selling of books. When stores had unsold product, they could return those books to the company after a period of time to receive a refund under their distribution agreement. Direct sales distributors were allowed to fine-tune their specific orders, ordering as little or as many copies of a book as needed. This also allowed the possibility of steeper discounts on purchases.
The Dark Age Rises
In the few short years following Crisis, comics experienced a massive cultural shift both in tone and in visibility. More creators came into the industry, looking to make their mark like the storytellers that made them fans. There were a lot of genre and character defining books released in the late 80’s that helped bring about this shift, but most like to point to the release of two particular books that changed pretty much everything for comics: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.
Both TDKR and Watchmen were thoughtful deconstructions of the superhero comic seen through a more mature lens. The pedigree and the proximity of the releases (along with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman film) caused interest from the mainstream press and media that wasn’t seen before from those outlets prior. Even when certain characters gained a massive widespread appeal, that was usually courtesy of an adaptation in some other format. Now, the long time but not open comic book fan could make themselves known as a consumer-because comic books were beginning to no longer be perceived as “just kid’s stuff.”
Realizing that they could finally refocus to target primarily an older audience with more disposable income, comic book publishers did just that. Inspired by the success of dark reimaginings, all kinds of characters saw themselves placed in new, more perceivably serious situations; if they weren’t replaced outright with gritty versions more in line with how comic books were being seen in the mainstream. Meanwhile, that mainstream media couldn’t get enough of comic book human interest stories. All the new attention sent non-collectors back through their old childhood memories, discovering old copies of comics that were decades old. Now that collectors were out and proud, they were on the prowl for these old issues in the best conditions they could find. By now it was the Beanie Baby 1990’s, and a booming economy meant you couldn’t avoid special interest stories about someone who still had an old Action Comics or Fantastic Four lying around and made upwards of thousands of dollars selling it to collectors.
Just as clever people saw the potential in direct sales, others saw the potential in buying up comic books for the express purpose of selling back to collectors after appreciating in value. These ‘speculators’ bought based on what had sold before-first issues, first appearances of characters, character deaths, status quo changes, celebrated artists and writers, things like that. Publishers, catching onto this almost immediately, exploited it by releasing as many new books that met those criteria as possible; even if they weren’t capable as meeting the quality of the books that inspired them. To sell to the maximum, DC and Marvel both pulled completely out of the independent distribution system entirely. By this time, there weren’t nearly as many warehouses, but the ones remaining gained a significant level of clout in the business, as there really was no other option. In order to get comic books on the regular, customers had to go to comic book stores regardless of the inconvenience of doing so.
Except older comic books were seen as disposable children’s entertainment and no efforts were made to properly preserve them. As a result, they became scarce. These new books, on the other hand, they were not only being preserved by everyone-there were so many printed to make as much as possible within release. So while this made a little bit of money for a time, the bubble ended up bursting spectacularly. All of a sudden, there was a massive amount of comics with questionable quality that no one really wanted. This was catastrophic on the industry, especially Marvel, who literally went bankrupt. For a moment, comic books were hanging by a thread.
Reconstruction By Destruction
Thankfully, comic book publishers had a particularly good leverage point to pivot back on: their characters. Marvel basically licensed itself back into the black by handing out movie rights to whoever would take them. DC Comics was able to avoid this situation by simply being already owned by a massive corporate entity, Warner Brothers. That insulated them a bit from the crash, but the damage done to the brand by that and the less than stellar performance pre-Christopher Nolan Batman films didn’t help.
Distribution had become completely insulated into direct sales, meaning that some markets were near completely closed off to publishers. Additionally, the past decade of less than stellar stories didn’t help give fans hope for characters; there were tons of books no one wanted and it took nearly as many to get things stable. At one point, Marvel even released a book mocking their own inability to properly resolve a Spider-Man story arc:
Despite this, comics still had customers. Fans still wanted to know what was happening to these characters, even if it meant having to dredge through complicated stories. Publishers decided to double down on the one thing that they knew would work. So they returned to Crisis.
Event comics never really fell out of favor, but none of them really attempted to reach the scale of Crisis, instead trying to focus on just their corner of the universe (a possible exception to this could be Death of Superman.) So, in the early ‘00’s, event comics expanded to often cover as much of their universes as possible. DC published various successors to the original Crisis all bearing similar monikers. Marvel took steps to create stories that often left upsets all over their status quo. By 2005, propelled by books like Civil War, comics had reached a certain level of sustainability again. It also worked at retaining fans. Despite the drastic changes, the impacts left behind by events rippled into ongoing series and even created new ones. In order to keep up, event comics basically became mandatory reading. Comic shops were also incentivized to order more, and thus became invested in seeing the stories succeed. And that brings us up to today.
If you talk to a lot of comics fans, you’ll often hear lamentation at the proliferation of events today. For them, it can often become difficult to follow series as they are often sucked into events or the aftermath of those events. Despite the best efforts of writers, the sense of fatigue is very real, exasperated by the constant need for comic books to sell themselves. That same mentality that created shocking covers to attract readers is the same one that creates event comics. That plan works, too. Comics are moving more books than ever. With that in mind, why wouldn’t publishers continue on the path that they are on? This is how you get events like Secret Empire. I have no doubt that the folks working on the book are doing so with the intent only to tell a story (and Nick Spencer is a pretty good writer), but thanks to the ongoing ‘comics sell comics’ machine, no amount of backlash will put an end to it, even it is bad.
With all that history in mind, everything sounds somewhat defeatist. It’s clear that simply passing on stories won’t actually make the kind of impact people might want. I wouldn’t even advocate for a full on boycott, because plenty more of the audience will fill the gap. While it has always been true that comics have to sell themselves, the way that happens has changed multiple times, as I hope you can see now. All it takes is a change in the audience’s purchases. Instead of completely blacklisting a publisher or comics as a whole, consider purchasing books that you do want to support; and if possible purchase them within the direct sales system. While Marvel and others would do well to start to factor other channels when it comes to sales reports, they currently don’t. At this current moment, buying a single issue in a comic shop simply means more. If you can’t do that, try to purchase digital copies or trades as soon as they’re available to imply demand. Consider also other publishers and smaller titles outside of the big two as well. We’ve recommended a few right here.
The real moral of the story here, true believers, is that the comic book industry has changed, and will change again. It will be in the hands of the fans, however, to decide what comes next. We do not create the stories, but we do influence how they are created.