Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The Greg Hatcher Legacy Files #27: ‘Friday at the Finish Line’

[Today’s entry was posted on 30 April 2010 and you can find it here. Sadly, no Wayback Machine link this time!]

Okay, so here is where I admit to being stupid. Or maybe it’s just naïve.

A couple of years ago, as we comics columnist types love to do, I was playing around with ideas for what the comics market might look like in the future. One of the thoughts I had then was the notion that mainstream superhero comics could quit trying to be monthly periodicals and just take the plunge into book publishing, along the same model as licensed paperbacks do. In other words, you’d keep the good things about a shared universe, but you could get rid of a lot of pacing and format problems. Problems that only exist because we are habituated to getting superhero comics as monthly booklets of a uniform size and page count, despite the fact that the spinner racks the format was specifically designed to accommodate no longer exist.

My idea was, you know, if the stories are being written for the trade paperback format anyway, what’s the point of holding creators to the artificially rigid, clumsy format of a strict 22-page-per-chapter, six-chapter formula? Why not let creators pace things how they want to? Just put out the trade paperbacks to start with and be done with it.

There are good arguments on both sides of this — on the pro side, you could give creators lots of lead time, you could have a variety of talent working on a character, you’re not shackled to a specific format size, shape, or page count. Con, you have to get over the problem that trade collections only work financially if the monthly comics serve as loss leaders up front, comics retailers wouldn’t be able to adapt, etc., etc.

I still like the idea. But one of the arguments that was brought up when I floated the notion a couple of years back was, “Companies would still do strictly continuity-driven serials, they’d just drag them out to fit the new trade-paperback format.”

I snorted that this was ridiculous, fans would never stand for that kind of super-sprawl, no one would support an idea that stupid.

I stand corrected.

So this week, the third issue of Superman: Last Stand of New Krypton came out. That was allegedly the conclusion to a nine-part crossover story running through all the Super books the last couple of months. That spun out of the conclusion to the twelve-part World of New Krypton maxi-series, which in turn was launched from the six-part “Brainiac” arc that ran through the summer of 2008. And “Last Stand of New Krypton” didn’t end either, it turns out that it’s just the prelude to War of the Supermen.

Still with me? That means that means that the last time we actually had a Superman story conclude — and by that I mean finish, no cliffhanger, no shocking last-panel twist, simply get to THE END — was the Toyman story that preceded the Brainiac six-part arc. That was in May of 2008.

Two years ago.

Since that time, DC has released — first in hardcover, priced at $24.99, and then in trade paperback for $17.99 — Superman: Brainiac, Superman: Mon-El, Superman: New Krypton volumes one, two, and three … and none of these stories finish. There is no conclusion. Nor does there appear to be one on the horizon any time soon. These trade paperbacks collect “arcs” that don’t really significantly arc. The numbering means nothing. These books don’t end, they just stop.

Now, if it was just the Superman books, I’d shrug it off. But it’s happening all over the place, at both Marvel and DC. At Marvel we have Civil War which led to The Initiative which became Dark Reign that led to Siege. DC had Omac Project and Villains United and Rann-Thanagar War — all miniseries that were collected in trade paperback, none of which had an ending, but instead all led in to Infinite Crisis. And so on. More recently there was all the Green Lantern stuff that sprawled on from Sinestro Corps War through the rainbow of six-part colored-Lantern stories that culminated in Blackest Night, which it turns out was the prelude to Brightest Day.

So, okay, it’s event fatigue.

Except it’s not confined to event books any more. It really jumped out at me when I took an interest in the current run of Black Panther, as I mentioned last week. I’ve been reading the series in trade, and I was a little annoyed when I realized that of the six trade paperback collections that arrived over the last couple of weeks, only two of them actually concluded. The others ended in cliffhangers… “to be continued.” I thought, if it annoys me when I’m getting these books heavily-discounted, used, and more or less in a bunch, how much more maddening would it be for readers who paid full price in good faith, thinking that they’d get a complete reading experience and not just a fragment of one?

This phenomenon has been creeping up on us for a while, but it startled me to realize that it had become the norm. Captain America, The Dark Tower, Immortal Iron Fist, JSA, Invincible Iron Man … all series I’ve been reading in collected editions — many of which only collect partial bits of a story.

And those are the books that aren’t particularly known for soap-opera sprawl. God knows what the poor X-Men fans are going through.

There’s a truism in psychology. It goes something like this — the more a subject is aware of being manipulated, the less successful the manipulation becomes.

Or, as we used to grumble after the fourth season or so of The X-Files, “Okay, enough is enough, now you guys are just milking it.”

I suspect that this habit of stretching stories out to an interminable length and spinning every plot point off into its own separate mini-series is born of desperation. DC and Marvel are hemorrhaging readers and editors are flailing around for any gimmick they can think of to keep any more of us from jumping ship. And these companies are in the business of selling books, after all; if they can sell more books on a tie-in mini-series gimmick, they will beat that gimmick into the ground. I get it. I do.

Let me clarify one point. I don’t object to long-form stories, not at all. I love 24 the television show and I quite liked both 52 and Trinity. I was fine with Batman: No Man’s Land.

But all those comics examples A) said right up front it was a year-long commitment, and B) kept that commitment honestly. After the year (or whatever) was up, they were done. That’s fine with me and I’ve liked a lot of those efforts.

What I object to is this thing (like this week’s really egregious example in the Superman books, but there are LOTS of others) where you get the ostensible finite commitment but then it turns out that, whoops, it’s actually continuing on and the “ending” isn’t really an ending at all. It’s given us a bunch of trade collections that are not satisfying as entertainment, it’s incredibly poorly-constructed as storytelling, and it has the added bonus of being false advertising.

How something this irritating on that many levels got to be almost the industry standard baffles me.

Look. At some point, even when you are trying something really long-form like 52 or Seven Soldiers or whatever, if you are doing it properly then you have to pay it off. People stick with a long-term story like Fringe or Lost or The X-Files on the premise that it’s all leading up to something. And if you promise that your series is in six parts or twelve parts or even fifty-two parts then, goddammit, the audience has a right to expect that the last part ends with The End. Not “The story continues in …”

That kind of bait-and-switch won’t get you new readers, and it doesn’t even keep your loyal readers loyal. That just pisses them off. Eventually they’ll get wise to the trick and leave.

If that kind of angry exodus happens often enough, then it really will be The End. And not the good kind.

At least, that’s my guess. But as I said in the beginning, I might be really naïve. God knows, I’ve underestimated the amount of crap the superhero audience will put up with before.

But sooner or later the bubble’s gotta pop, doesn’t it?

See you next week.


  1. It’s not just that they don’t end, they don’t even have the whole story. I read some of Sterling Gates’ Supergirl TPBs from the New Krypton era and there’s a whole bunch of stuff taking place in other books without even a Meanwhile, in Superman text explanation. That’s not the only example.
    I can live with this, generally, in single issues (over a year of Green Lantern crossing over with Blackest Night and Brightest Day would have been too much even if they were good). It doesn’t work in TPB format at all.

  2. mike loughlin

    I dropped off the Superman titles right before the end of the New Krypton stories. I regretted it at the time, because I genuinely enjoyed them most months. Then I heard about the shenanigans described here and the dismal ending and I was glad not to have wasted my money.

    Looking back at this period, there were very few Big 2 comics that caught my interest. The endless crossovers kept me from caring, knowing whatever story I might be interested in would be interrupted by stuff I didn’t care about.

    Also: any trade ending on a cliffhanger should be marked with a “part 1” or something similar. Otherwise, no matter how good the content is, you risk losing your audience’s trust.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    I wasn’t buying this stuff then. I bailed on most regular superhero books by the end of the mid-90s, and the few I kept up were mostly done by the 2000s, with a couple of notable exceptions. I bailed when I felt like I was rereading stories from the late 70s and 80s, again, by writers with no ideas of their own; they just wanted to rehash their old favorites. Even Roy Thomas, at his worst, added something new to a repeat of an old JSA story.

    For the most part, I found that staying away from the mainstream DC and Marvel line was safer reading, things like Starman or a mini-series like JSA: The Liberty Files, the ABC line of books or similar. The odd mini-series, with an ending, was fine, though even the good writers, like Ed Brubaker, kind of fell into the nostalgia trap. I liked Marvels Project; but, a good chunk of it felt like a retread of the first half dozen issues of the Invaders, plus the Sgt Fury origin story. The thing that kept me reading was the addition of The Angel and the connection tot he Tw-Gun Kid, as the first masked hero. That was just enough to get me to forgive the remake stuff. When we started having the endless events within families of books, I was pretty well done. One in a while was one thing, but it got out of hand across the 90s and into the 2000s, even as they pulled back on the company-wide crossovers I though the Seven Soldiers model (which was done before that, with James Robinson & David Goyer’s JSA mini, that preceded the revival of the JSA series, where you had two bookend comics, than individual adventures in a series of comics, reviving the old Golden Age mastheads (like National Comics). That’s a fine, self-contained little world.

    I’m not sure whether the problem is that the writers don’t know how to write endings anymore or if it is that editors just flat out don’t know how to do their job. The editor should be the one to say, well, that’s a nice script but where is the ending? It has to pay off or people won’t stick around. The payoff is everything.

    Comics aren’t the only thing affected by this. TV arcs have fallen into this, on some shows, to the point they just keep repeating the arc (like Heroes, where the second season felt like a remake of the first, with a few more revelations of parents involved in the conspiracy), film franchises (the Star Wars sequel mess) and things like pro wrestling booking. One of the things that killed the WCW promotion was that they didn’t seem to know how to end the big NWO angle and they blew the logical conclusion of Sting defeating Hulk Hogan and taking the title off of him, as the WCW side defeats the NWO invasion. That is how all pro wrestling stories are supposed to end: the good guy, after a series of trials and set-backs, finally defeats the villain and claims the prize.. It’s what made Highlander 2 land with such a thud. What do you mean that everything starts all over if new immortals come to Earth? Then what the hell was the point of fighting until there was only one survivor? What was the point of The Prize? How the hell does Ramirez come back to life, but the Kurgan or Castegir remain dead?

    Robinson being involved in the Superman mess is surprising, given he had no problem crafting definite ends to his Starman arcs. Maybe it was because he had been taught discipline under Archie Goodwin, but fell into bad habits after he was gone (To The Stars and Grand Guignol did kind of drag on, compared to earlier arcs).

  4. Darthratzinger

    I never understood these complaints. When seemingly endless stories were done well, I enjoyed them. This Superman era was pretty good, for example. After this (and yes, there was an end to that story) with Supes walking across America and Luthor taking over Action Comics it got boring and I welcomed the New 52 as a jump-off point.
    Sure, it involved a lot of characters and titles, but at the time I knew pretty much all the characters and got a kick out of the revelation of the Legion espionage squad hiding in that era.
    It was also nothing new. Several people wrote that they enjoyed the triangle years of Superman. That was exact same thing: re-read them please. It was always building on previous stories and the only times there was something like an ending was in the (rare) case of a change of writers.
    When it comes the repeatedly mentioned anthology titles like Legends Of The Dark Knight, JSA/JLA Classified, they seem a bit overrated. The best was definitely Legends. In both Classified titles though for every New Maps Of Hell was a Kid Amazo or for every …Funny, I don´t find a really outstanding JSA Classified arc. They were all standard to forgettable. Maybe the Classified titles seemed better at the time because they main series were not doing well either.

    1. That’s a fair point. In 1965/66, as I’ve been writing about in my own posts, FF and Thor are one long-form piece of storytelling, seguing from one adventure to another without a clean cutoff.
      Possibly it’s because each issue still delivered a satisfactory story in itself (I’d say the same of the triangle era) which isn’t always the case now.

      1. Darthratzinger

        One of my favorite Batman eras used that model and that was Gerry Conways run on Batman and Detective Comics. It was one long-form story through two titles, so You had to buy both but it was really well done. Most Marvel Superhero titles were long-form with the Hulk being the major exception (and one of the weakest titles). The triangle years were an expansion of that model: You had to buy four monthlies to be in the loop, also the three-monthly book (whose title escapes me at the moment) plus the occasional x-over. That was a lot of books for the entire story (not counting the line-wide x-overs). I liked the model because the triangle years were at the least very solid ( I only hated the fact that every fourth book featured pencils by an artist whose work I disliked). Done-in-one could be good as were 2/3/4-parters. It just depended on wether it was done well or not. Of course the big two overdid it every once in a while.

  5. Eric van Schaik

    I have the Superman run started by John Byrne far in the triangle years. After years of collecting I wanted to stop and decided that Death and Return would end my personal run. My kid’s school were happy with more than 100 comics.

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