Thursday, December 29, 2005

Friday in a Fantasy World

Friday came early again. As luck would have it I actually have time off from all my various jobs so I'm going to get this posted, turn off the computer for a day or two and spend quality time with my bride. (Oops. There goes all my street cred as a comics nerd.)

As you may recall, I've been reading older, non-superhero books a lot the last couple of months. Well, I'm still working my way though a lot of older stuff that came in the mail, and by the way, check out THIS awesome haul --

-- pause for the gloat --

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(It's embarrassing how gleeful that makes me. As much as we all claim to be readers and lovers of the artform, I am certain that inside each of us there still lives a collector who secretly really enjoys the simple obsessive-compulsive pleasure in getting a complete run of something.)

(It's not a COMPLETE run, no, but it knocks off over half of it, and only a couple of weeks after rhapsodizing about them here. So. Gleeful chuckles from the Hatcher household.)

...anyway. Sorry, lost focus there for a moment. But I was reading through these, and some of the old Conan books I've been getting in the mail, and I started feeling crabby again about the current stranglehold superheroes have on adventure comics, and then it occurred to me to wonder --

Why can't Marvel and DC sell fantasy?

Well of course it's all fantasy, isn't it? But I mean "high" fantasy, the swashbuckling kind with swords and wizards and dragons and stuff.

Think about it. Comics fans are all over this stuff when it's NOT in comics. There is a HUGE overlap between the people who regularly buy Marvel and DC books and the people who play "dark fantasy" videogames, who enjoy Dungeons & Dragons, who stood in line for the opening night of the Lord of the Rings films or the latest Harry Potter, who know the works of Anne McCaffrey and Robert E. Howard backward and forward -- but almost always, when Marvel or DC puts that stuff in a comic book it sinks like a stone. The big fantasy success stories in comics are Conan the Barbarian, Warlord, and Elfquest. All gone now except the Conan revival at Dark Horse, which is doing okay numbers but not record-breaking or anything.

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So what's up with that? Where are the fantasy geeks in comics fandom? I know you're out there -- I overhear you talking about gaming in comic shops.

I don't actually have an answer. It just has been bugging me. To a lesser extent, I'm a little befuddled as to why no one's been able to make science fiction really work in comics since the early 60's. Even Star Trek never really did that well as a comic book, despite having fan-favorite Trek novelists like Peter David and Michael Jan Friedman writing the books.

This isn't to say that publishers don't try. And I'm thrilled to see DC, especially, taking a chance on non-costume books like Hard Time, or even the Vertigo line, though Vertigo seems to be trapped in this sort of adolescent goth/hipster/horror mode; I don't think there's as much overlap with the D&D fantasy folks there as there is with the superhero audience.

So you can't really blame the publishers. It's not them... it's us. We don't go for the stuff. Kull, Weirdworld, Michael Moorcock, Amethyst, Arion, whatever, in comics it's poison.

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Why? What is the deal-breaker here? The best of Marvel's Kull books, for example, certainly were as good or better than the Conan stuff they put out at the same time, but the Conan sold and the Kull didn't. Neither did Tor or Stalker or Starfire or any of the other attempts to follow up on Conan's success in the 70's. Kull and the Barbarians was essentially the same damn magazine as Savage Sword of Conan was: the Marvel crew turning out faithful Robert E. Howard adaptations, under the watchful eye of Roy Thomas. But Conan's book ran two hundred and thirty-plus issues and Kull's ran three. Go figure.

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I guess the reason this keeps worrying at me, these questions of genre narrowing and re-packaging formats and the fannish refusal to try new things, is because I love comics as a form, particularly adventure comics, and I can't shake the feeling that we are squeezing the life out of them. I keep looking at the old Marvel and DC output and comparing it with the new, and boy, the new stuff just looks sad. Not in terms of the execution, so much as it just seems like it's... cannibalizing itself. Endless reboots, revamps, "revisiting" hero origins and Year One stories, retelling the old stories with new writers and artists. Why can't Matt Wagner talk DC into doing an epic fantasy instead of another story of Batman's early years? As much as I love Batman and the Monster Men, how many more versions of Batman's origin do we need? And this is Matt Wagner for crying out loud, the guy who did Grendel and Mage. DC doesn't trust him to do something original?

In my cartooning classes, the stuff that grabs the kids right out of the gate is the fantasy/adventure, fairy-tale stuff. They eat it up. I get so many of my girl students drawing princesses with butterfly wings you wouldn't believe it. They don't get it from U.S. publishers, so they find it in the manga books from Tokyopop and Viz. I'd think we could get some of the U.S. talent on the fantasy/SF bandwagon here and break a little new ground. The companies have shown a willingness to try... Dark Horse keeps trying to get an Edgar Rice Brurroughs franchise up and running, Warlord is coming back from DC for another run, Marvel periodically tries stuff like Deathlok or Star-Lord.

But for some reason, by and large we choke the stuff off. I wonder why.

Speculation is welcome, because I really don't have a clue. Comment away.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

" And I'm thrilled to see DC, especially, taking a chance on non-costume books like Hard Time, or even the Vertigo line, though Vertigo seems to be trapped in this sort of adolescent goth/hipster/horror mode; I don't think there's as much overlap with the D&D fantasy folks there as there is with the superhero audience."

Not to nitpick or anything, but isn't that more of a description of "old" Vertigo? since Sandman ended and they ran out of marginal characters to spin off into their own books, Vertigo has been more about books like The Losers, Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets than the whole goth thing.

12/29/2005 08:24:00 PM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

You might very well be right. Last time I looked at Vertigo was when somebody sent me the trade paperback collecting the first few issues of Fables. Which I just kind of mentally put under the same umbrella. But the point, that there's less overlap there with the D&D crowd than with, say, X-Men fans, still stands, I think.

Why won't the people buying House of M or Infinite Crisis or any of these other intricate, endless superhero-mythology crossovers buy the same kind of story without costumes and capes? That's what I want to know. There's the same continuity-driven storytelling in Babylon 5 or Dragonlance or anything like that, but you can't get the same kind of genre stuff into double digits in comics sales to the same audience. Why not?

12/29/2005 08:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Pete said...

Ask and ye shall receive.

February: New series of Warlord by Bruce Jones and Bart Sears (DC).

March: Aquaman relaunches as Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis by Kurt Busiek and Butch Guice with a "swords and sorcery" focus (DC).

And of course, Elfquest is being reprinted by DC at the moment, with the occasional new storyline.

12/29/2005 10:06:00 PM  
Anonymous thekamisama said...

I still jones hard for Nexus and GrimJack on a monthly basis.

Just an aside on the whole lack of fantasy fans, we have a comic shop down the road that refuses to carry any comics other than Super/Bat/Spider/X-Men stuff. This place actually makes most of it's money on gamers, all those Clix games and the Magic/Pokemon/YuGiOh Cards...
But they don't even try to sell these kids with scads of parental cashola any sort of Manga or fantasy comics?!?!?
I recall one day going in there just on a whim to look at some old Silver Age stuff and seeing a kid with a Kingdom Hearts manga book. I didn't even know they made one. So I asked the kid where in the store he picked it up at and he goes, "I bought it across the street at the Hastings"....
Go figure?

12/29/2005 11:25:00 PM  
Anonymous RAB said...

Is the question why do readers of superhero comics not read comics in other, possibly closely related genres? or is it why do American fans of other genres in other media not read comics of those genres?

I suppose either way, the answers are related. I know rabid SF fans who wouldn't read The Invisibles or Ocean even though they'd love those stories, only because they never learned how to read comics. There was nothing in comics for them at an early age, so they never acquired the skill, and a page of comic book art is now literally incomprehensible to them. Strange but true!

Beyond that, even among the comics-literate potential readership, there's an element of rational decision-making based on perceived value. If you enjoy a genre, you gravitate towards the medium that does it best.

For me, the value in watching some Star Trek episode was to enjoy the performances of the actors. As a result, reading a comic book with likenesses of those actors has never been a big draw. And when I've seen Trek comics, the stories have mostly been derivative and boring. Most of the attempts at doing SF by Marvel and DC in the Seventies and Eighties were space operas which had been out of date in prose SF thirty years earlier. They were often written by people who learned SF only from Star Trek or Star Wars -- maybe you'd get a writer familiar with Heinlein or Niven, but even that was rare. If you enjoyed hard SF, you'd stick with prose; the comics version was weak and watered-down by comparison. By the same token, if you liked martial arts, comics were good for a quick fix, but couldn't offer remotely the same thrill as any kung fu film from Hong Kong. Given the choice between the two, you'd pick the film.

Historically, what comics could do better than any film or tv show or prose medium was superheroes. Lately that seems to be changing, and that's going to hurt superhero comics in the long run; the industry better relearn some old tricks.

It's not enough to do mediocre versions of other genres when fans of those genres are now swamped with other choices in so many other media. For an SF comic -- or a fantasy comic, or a martial arts comic, or whatever -- to succeed, it needs to be both a good comic with first-rate story and art AND better than anything else out there in other, more accessible, media. The Invisibles and Elfquest qualify in their respective genres, so it is possible. Someone could do a Western comic better than any Western film Hollywood could make today. Or a sword-and-sorcery tale more engaging than any RPG. It's tough, but it can be done.

12/30/2005 12:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Typolad said...

Actually, Anne McCaffrey is SF, not Fantasy. Her "dragonsd" are the product of genetic engeneering and all her menaces are science-based. In fact, one might even say that it's "hard" SF.

Sorry, just part of a debate I had way back when.

12/30/2005 07:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Brian (not Cronin) said...

I just finished reading the Dabel Brothers adaptation of "The Hedge Knight," a short story by George R.R. Martin, set in the world of his "Song of Ice and Fire" series. Martin has definitely got it going on with the high fantasy, and this adaptation is just stunning. I'll definitely be looking for more of their fantasy adaptations.

I think the reason why fantasy comics aren't catching on is partially because people don't "know how" to read comics, but partially because fantasy, as represented by current popular novels (Martin, Robert Jordan, Ray Feist, Guy Gavriel Kay) is long. These novelists write several-hundred page novels, in triologies (if you're lucky). While sci-fi short stories are commonplace, fantasy doesn't seem to lend itself to the short form nearly as well, and comics are a pretty darned short form, even in a six-month story arc.

So you're left with shallow, pulpy fantasy that the "serious" fantasy readers won't touch, and anything longer or more complex is deemed "unadaptable" to the comics medium. The Dabel Brothers seem to be proving that assumption wrong; I hope they continue to do so. What we need, though, is a serious, original fantasy from a major publisher, and I doubt that's going to happen soon.

12/30/2005 01:53:00 PM  
Blogger MarkAndrew said...

Yeah, but the current popular novels, at least those I've read or skimmed through...

Well, kinda blow goats.

I(n) M(y) (O)pinion.

Sandman, Lucifer, Bone, Cerebus, Beanworld, Rabbithead, Dungeon, A Distant Soil, into the surrealist or magical realist stuff like Clowes' "David Boring" 'n "A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron," or Love and Rockets or kim Deitch's Waldo stories...

Any of these are certainly more layered, intelligent, and nuanced LIT-erature wise than those freaking 7,000 page (EACH) ten volume Tolkein-for-dummies rip-offs that I see on the Bestseller lists.

I dunno. Bone is obviously a vassstly more accessable, better drawn, smarter and funnier comic than mosta Marvel and DC's "Adventures of CAPTAIN ANTI-SOCIAL"-type ouvre, and I have no idea why Jeff Smith's little white dude's aren't more popular than Infinite Crisis.

Science Fiction, contrarily, 'specially HARD science fiction, seems more suited to prose, just 'cause using prose the author has more time to explain stuff. It takes a heck-of-a-lotta verbage to come up with a semi-plausable explanation for time travel. (The kind of explanation that comics, wisely, tend t' skip riiight over.)

But, sure, it seems like space opera-style Star Warsian Sci-fi could work in comics jes' fine.

I guess there's a history of 'em not selling, ever, though. EC's science fiction line, generally considered better drawn 'n smarter than their horror comics never equalled the drawin' power of their Gore and Grue books.

Weirdly, though, the Julie Schwartz superhero comics, which were essentially Pure speculative Fiction dressed up in spandex did pretty well. So audience's don't seem to MIND science fiction as long as the companies can make them THINK that they're getting superheroes.

A perplexin' conundrum, that's fer sure. I gots no answers.

12/30/2005 03:26:00 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Well, I wouldn't be surprised to see Battlechasers pop up at Icon. Okay, I would be surprised, but more due to Madureira actually being bothered to put some work in rather than Marvel not wanting to publish it.

The smaller publishers seem to be embracing the fantasy genre much more readily. There's some okay D&D stuff out there too.

12/30/2005 06:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there's your astronauts in trouble, and your switchblade honey, and your full moon fever and those others from ait.

12/31/2005 02:13:00 AM  
Anonymous FarOutFreak said...

Something short...

Is it possible that the medium of SF/fantasy lends itself to being quite suited just for the novel/short story medium, and kind of becomes diluted at the point that you try to make it into comics?

Part of the allure of the genre is that, somehow, you're allowed to create your own vision of a world as far as the writer sees it. Comics may just restrict you to seeing this perception from the artist's point of view. Same with the movies and TV.

1/01/2006 06:41:00 PM  

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