Death to Canon

April 28th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , , ,

A large part of the appeal of superheroes is the ongoing narrative. Like soap operas, wrestling, and movie franchises, people like to drop in and see what’s going on with a character. While there are Elseworlds, What Ifs, dreams, alternate universes, and house shows, there’s a clear series of stories that are “real.” You can trace the biography of Clark Kent from 1938 to 2010, and buy books that tell that story from the beginning. Regular reinventions re-tell his origin, but with rotary phones replaced with touchtone phones, and then newspapers replaced by the internet, and then the internet replaced by newspapers again.

This has expanded from a biography into a mythology. It’s not enough to have Clark Kent from ’39 to ’10. You need to know Clark Kent’s place in the DC Universe, and how he relates to thousands of other characters. There is a narrative, whether on a small scale or a macro scale, that you can follow from A-Z. Superman died [mumble] years ago and this is how it affected Blue Beetle. Peter Parker fought Norman Osborn in college, and here is how that affects the Marvel Universe. Stories that do not fit into that narrative are either handwaved away in favor of the new interpretation of the character or deprecated and consigned to the realm of “imaginary stories.”

The idea of “real” stories is one that Marvel and DC both have wholly embraced. It is the stuff that runs in the veins of big events, and the reason why comics fans claim that they hate events but buy them anyway. “I want to know what happens! This matters!” You want that next chapter in the ongoing story, you need to know what happens to Peter Parker in Civil War, and you want to know the effects of Secret Invasion on the greater Marvel Universe. You’re invested in the narrative.

That investment leads to the immediacy that drives the direct market. You can go to the comic shop every week and get an update on whichever universe you prefer. If you don’t have that immediacy, that lust for the periodical, you have no reason to hit a comic shop and can just order the completed stories a few months down the line and read them at your leisure. DC’s recently stated wish to push back against trade waiters and emphasize the monthly comics (a move I find, frankly, idiotic and backwards) is their latest attempt to maintain their stranglehold on that market. These are the lifers, the ones who go in, buy their comics, complain, and buy them again the next month.

Series that don’t tie into the narrative sink like rocks. Barring aberrations like Deadpool’s current status, who ride a bubble of interest until it fizzles out, anecdotal knowledge says that niche books don’t sell. Recent casualties: Blade, Blue Beetle, Captain Britain & MI-13, SWORD, and Brother Voodoo. Books like Runaways and Agents of Atlas are repeatedly relaunched, repositioned, and revamped in an attempt to keep readers. Runaways in particular was changed to tie directly into the greater Marvel Universe for its second volume.

Those books get cancelled because retailers know that readers want important stories, so they order accordingly. Who cares what happened in Runaways? Is Spider-Man even in that? And The Mighty? Who is that? Is Green Lantern ever gonna guest star? “Save ______” campaigns, barring the amazing dedication of Spider-Girl fans, rarely work. The books get resurrected, retailers order a couple extra copies at best, since the last series failed, and then we’re left right back where we started: “Save ______.”

Simple question: why? Why are the books that are “real” considered more “real” than the others? In the end, the only thing you get out of reading a “real” story is a different set of fake information about a fake character. Both results are equally fake. You think somebody who only ever watched The Dark Knight cares that Batman once fought a dude with eyeballs where his fingertips go? Or that Spider-Man getting married matters more than that time Venom drove a truck in the Spider-Man cartoon? No, because here is the truth: all stories are fake stories. Granted, there is a certain amount of pleasure in following a character’s ongoing adventures, but let’s be real: all stories are fake stories. Being part of a string of fake stories doesn’t make it any more real than the other fake story.

So, why is Amazing Spider-Man more real than Spider-Man Noir? Easy: Marvel says so. Or DC says so. Or whoever. They have a vested interest in keeping their captive audience, for lack of a better phrase, so they maintain something approaching a canon, a group of stories that are “real.” Those other stories, Elseworlds and What Ifs and whatever, are fake, and you don’t need them to know what’s going on. If you buy them, that’s great, but look–Siege is what you need. Buy Green Lantern because it’s important.

My least favorite question in comics is “Is this in continuity?” That’s a frustrating question, especially when recommending a book to someone. There is the implication that stories that are in continuity matter more than ones that don’t, when that is undeniably false. I read Spider-Man comics for a few years without ever picking up Amazing Spider-Man.

Nowadays, I think the thrice-weekly Amazing Spider-Man is a great book, one of the most consistently good cape books on the stands. It has had its low points, its dips in quality, but the overall package is good. Last January, it was moving about sixty thousand units.

Spider-Man Noir is honestly one of my favorite Spider-Man stories. The writing was on point, the art was excellent, and it all came together very well. As far as Spidey stories go, it hits all the notes to make it a classic. It shipped thirty-one thousand copies.

Why the discrepancy? One is real, the other is not.

The problem with this system is that quality does not matter. Avengers Disassembled and Ultimatum were deck-clearing exercises. Everyone hated Spider-Man: One More Day, but it sold 150k. Identity Crisis was a terrible mystery and Blackest Night ended when a ghost popped up in the last issue and told everyone how to beat the bad guy. But, since these books are important, they sold gangbusters. Add a logo or a banner to a low-selling comic, script a tie-in to the important event, and watch the sales jump while people see what’s going on with the greater continuity. And then watch them fall once the continuity cop stuff is over.

Death to canon.

I hate the way it’s used in comics. Rather than having stories that matter, treat every story like it matters, Elseworlds or no. You can still do the ground-shaking status quo events, you can do sequels, and you can do long-running series. In fact, the way Marvel collects its events already does this. If you go to the store to buy Annihilation, you have Annihilation Book One, Annihilation Book Two, and Annihilation Book Three. They contain several stories from a variety of writers, but all tell the story of the Annihilation Wave. House of M has been collected into several softcovers. And in the bookstore, these books do not have any primacy over Spider-Man Noir or Agents of Atlas.

What’s important is the story and the creators. Not the canon, not the format, not the wrapper, not the company that made it. The story and the people who created it are the only ones that matter in this equation. By removing that fixation on the canon from the situation, comics fans can find themselves dozens of new books that are just as good, and sometimes better, than the canon-centric titles they buy in droves and talk about online.

We get the comics industry we deserve. By focusing only on the Universes, you miss the good stuff. I shifted my perception and found a wealth of books I would’ve otherwise ignored that rocked my socks off. I’m a firm believer in liking what you like, but at the same time, if I ruled the world? Comics would be a whole lot different than they are now. Fake stories are fake stories, no matter what anyone says. Once I started treating them like that, I started liking comics a whole lot more than I did already.

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21 comments to “Death to Canon”

  1. I’d argue that Runaways didn’t sell because of Marvel’s insistence on promoting it as “the comic that people who don’t read comics like to read”. Snobs liking something is not a recomendation to me.

    There’s a myth among comics creators that continuity/canon and good stories are mutually exclusive concepts, but that can go on for only so long when the main selling point of characters and their books is their place in a shared universe. I think there’ll probably come a time when ‘core’ canon books become unattractive to new readers and stuff like Johnny DC and Marvel Adventures seem a better prospect than the ‘real thing’. Personally, I’m already there thanks to high quality stuff like Tobin and parker’s Marvel Adventures Avengers/Spider-Man alongside Mark Millar’s Superman Adventures tpbs – all great comics ignored because of their percieved child-friendliness.

  2. @Al Loggins: When has Marvel ever marketed it as “the comic that people who don’t read comics like to read?” It was originally marketed at teens/manga fans are part of the Tsunami initiative, before that flopped, and then relaunched aimed right at being a part of the Marvel U with the “Who is the father of Victor Mancha?” plot.

  3. I kind of see your point with canon how good stories are not being written because of adherence to canon. I think the only negative comparison would be Archie. Sure they have canon like Jughead likes burgers and not girls or the Betty Veronica Archie triangle but for the most part they don’t have canon. But that’s why I don’t read those comics. they are all over the place and while the quirks of each character is cute the stories become redundant. A person’s history is important, the relationships they make are important for a character or else you could be reading about anyone or anything in a vague abstract way.

    – Seafire

  4. You’d think people would get that after “This is an Imaginary Story. Aren’t they all?”

  5. I see what you are saying, but at the end of the day, I still like my stuff to have a certain order and for previous events to have bearing in current events. That is why I have been a Marvel fan before (kinda hard nowadays). When DC keeps rebooting their universe every five years, they are saying they don’t care about their continuity and have to start over.

  6. I think a major part of the problem lies with comic retailers, the guys who look at SWORD or Doctor Voodoo and only order 25,000 copies for the first issue, and 20,000 for the second, before anyone’s even begun reading them. They find the stuff they believe will sell, order it in big numbers, and then push those books to their customers, ignoring whatever doesn’t look it’ll make them money.

    It becomes this weird self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Of course, that’s just based on my experience with my LCS. There’s a lot of Wildstorm, Vertigo, Red 5, and Image books I want to read, but I can never get them from my LCS, and wind up having to wait and buy the trade from Amazon.

    I think that, if DC and Marvel ever both get onboard with a serious digital distribution system, we’ll see smaller, more niche books sell considerably better than they do now. Especially if they’re priced at a point that is more friendly to budget-conscious readers.

  7. Seafire, the Archie books publish their sales figures every so often, and they sell quite well (especially the digests). They don’t sell well on the direct market but they are attractive to a larger audience outside the DM that presumably is less invested than the Wednesday crowd in shared-universe continuity.

    In any event, IMO the problem is less about continuity than the major publishers’ insistence on pushing their entire lines as single unified stories. Superhero comics have always had continuity, but the notion of a publisher’s entire line moving in a particular “direction” or adopting a particular tone is largely a creation of the last decade. Previously events that occurred in one title might be reflected in another (or sometimes might not), but there was rarely a sense that all of the titles were combining to tell one large story. Beginning with Countdown to Infinite Crisis at DC and Civil War at Marvel, both publishers have begun marketing this conceit in earnest.

    Both publishers have books that seem to be excepted from their mega-stories (to the extent such things are really “stories” at all), but we’ve reached the point where it’s not enough for a title to be entertaining. The majors have lost the ability to push anything except by noting how “relevant” it is – usually where “relevance” is defined as “essential to some other story.”

    End result is good books are more likely than ever to be overlooked unless they have ties to forty other books – hence a series like Superman/ Batman, which has actually been very good for the last few years but has been tonally at odds with most of DC’s output and uninvolved in most of the big mega-stories, gets ignored despite featuring the publisher’s two best-known characters.

    The idea that a publisher’s entire line of books must sync up into one big story is not only a surefire recipe for bad comics – it’s hugely limiting creatively because it imposes a sameness of tone on the entire line.

  8. @matches: That’s a fair point, and I do want to emphasize that I’m not talking about ditching the universes entirely, but rather changing how they are portrayed and emphasized. Early ’00s Marvel, where each book was more or less in its own “universe” and had free run of the Marvel U, is a good example. New X-Men ended with the destruction of Manhattan, and Spider-Man didn’t have to pop up in his book like “Boy, sure did suck when Manhattan was destroyed!” You just take stories on their own terms and allow that to build a greater whole, rather than actively jettisoning the macro in favor of the micro.

  9. I was rereading Thrillkiller the other day, and in each issue, the explanation for how and when Barbara Gordon came into possession of Wayne Manor changes. Talk about your Imaginary Story …

    I like continuity, because these are continuing stories. No slavish adherence, but a reverence to the existence of reference points. Example: I really enjoyed Matt Wagner’s “Trinity,” but I didn’t like that its portrayal of the early teamup of DC’s Big Three didn’t match continuity at all. Still enjoyed the book, though. I was happy to believe that the earliest 1939 Batman stories were no longer canon, but when Wagner does his “Mad Monk” and “Monster Men” retellings, they’re great, and they work in-continuity. They don’t match, perfectly, the tones and styles of Miller’s Year One or Loeb/Sale’s Long Halloween stuff, but allowing for interpretations, and a fuzziness of exactly when each adventure occurs, I could hand all those trades to someone and say, “Here’s early-career Batman. Enjoy.”

    I used to love the Legion, but that continuity is so messed up, I’ve checked out. I enjoyed Ms. Marvel and the character story Brian Reed was trying to tell, but every few months a massive crossover would destroy the status quo and momentum. Eventually I dropped the book. The crossovers spiked overall sales, temporarily, with their “importance,” but drove away a steady reader.

    I agree that the idea that continuity-shaping events are all that matters is … prevalent and stupid. I’d like to see my shared universes be consistent (if Wonder Woman knows Superman’s identity and they’re friends in JLA, then that should hold true when he appears in her book, right?) but not so tightly wound that if Guy Gardner sneezes in GLC, Tim Drake says “Gesundheit” in Red Robin.

  10. @david brothers: Exactly. There’s always been a “Marvel Universe” and a (historically somewhat more vague) “DC Universe” – but in the last 6-7 years both seem to have become the goal of storytelling rather than a by-product thereof.

  11. I’m having trouble understanding exactly what you mean by “death to canon.” Marvel and DC are what they are today because of their business plan on creating a canon that can more or less be followed by long-time readers. Comic readers relished this, and the companies gave them what they wanted. It’s not that one comic title is more real, it’s just that the companies realize there’s casual fans of a character that want to follow along and there’s hardcore fans that are completionists and will buy anything with the brand on it (and plenty of fans in between this spectrum), and the publishers act accordingly. I like Batman, and I like what’s been happening to him in the past three years, but I don’t like him enough to buy all 6+ titles and whatever Kevin Smith is writing. But some people do, and that’s what those other titles are for.

    You listed the Annihilation books there, but those are a success for all following the same event formula as other books. Ronan the Accuser, the Super-Skrull, and the other space books all had some link, however tenuous, to the Annihilation wave. Other space books that aren’t connected to those cosmic events don’t do well, like SWORD. And now look at Nova: His book is canceled as he gets sorted into the Thanos Imperative event. Even House of M was connected to Wanda going nuts in Avengers: Disassembled. All stories are fake stories, but people want the stories that weave into the established soap opera of their favorite character that they’ve been reading for years. And sales have shown that those stories do matter to a large portion of the comic reading majority.

    It’s not like I’m disagreeing with you when you say we have the comics industry we deserve, but saying all stories are fake stories doesn’t do the situation justice to me. For me there should be more focus on the socio-economical factors involved, especially since I feel that the majority of comic book readers are a conservative lot when it comes to buying what’s on the shelves. Having many of the big two books hit $4.00 have only exacerbated the situation. If I really want to read what’s going on with Spider-Man, but only have a fiver on me, then that Noir book is going back on the shelf. People don’t want to take chances on what’s new, so they’ll settle for the familiar, even if it’s sub-par. In today’s climate, maybe just being a back-up feature is the best a C-list or new character can hope for.

  12. Everyone: David is not saying “no more canon, when Spider-Man teams up with the Fantastic Four they must act like each time is the first” Maybe you guys should think of it as “Death to Sensationalism”

    He’s just saying that Marvel and DC forcing everything to arbitrarily mesh together and have the same tone – in fact, basing their whole business around it – means that titles that don’t jibe with that tone are simply going to fall through the cracks. Dane, it’s not just that comic book readers are conservative. Some are, true, but others love discovering something new. But how can they know about that amid the flurry of coverage for the events, where everything is sensationalized, they act as if things will never be the same and if you don’t know about it, you’re out of the loop? Stuff like Spider-Man Noir simply gets meager coverage when compared to the event stuff. But if Marvel and DC acted like EVERY book was important and vital? Better chance of better sales for them.

    Oh, and it used to be that when the Dr. Strange and the Avengers teamed up, it was something special. Now, it’s just Tuesday.

  13. Well done as always David.

    KISS version: It should be all about the stories. A good story is a good story…

    Or for me: Follow writers, not characters…

  14. Amen!

    The DC and Marvel cases are slightly different, but your overall point is well taken. Marvel began with an inter-connected universe that was created by a handful of people over a fairly short period of time. The core Marvel titles synch together somewhat naturally and can, therefore, produce some nice little moments. My sense is that this has been over-done in the cross-over era, but it has not really damaged the Marvel brand.

    Conversely, DC has really harmed themselves by trying to tell one over-arching, line-wide narrative. The core DC titles were created by dozens of creators, over several decades and (in some cases) by different legacy publishers. The “DC Universe” is both very large and very diverse. That can and should be its strength. The tone of Superman should not perfectly synch with Batman. Neither should be exactly like Wonder Woman, nor the Flash, nor Green Lantern. The JLA characters and their Teen Titan proteges should feel like they live in a slightly different world than the Doom Patrol, or the Metal Men or even the JSA. How awesome where off-beat the proto-Vertigo titles like Gaiman’s Sandman or Morrison’s Doom Patrol? Why isn’t the DCU big enough to hold stuff like that anymore?

    More to the point, isn’t DC the former home of the Big 5 war books? Doesn’t their biggest Western star have movie coming out? Whatever happened to on-going horror series? What about a real, honest-to-god Space Opera with someone like Adam Strange?

    It just feels like DC has sanded down the rough edges in an attempt to tell a “grand corporate narrative” and have (in the process) removed some of the charm the company had in the first place.

  15. @Dean: There are books published by DC like that – most of them have “Vertigo” or “Wildstorm” (or even “CMX,” counting manga) written on them instead. House of Mystery is going strong. Unknown Soldier is the second best-selling war comic behind Garth Ennis’s Battlefields (unless GI Joe counts as a war comic, in which case it’s, like, ninth). Space opera even gets the DC logo with REBELS (featuring Adam Strange). They still publish Jonah Hex and all-ages books like Looney Tunes. I do not even believe DC proper even needs to diversify too far beyond what they do now.

    That said: for the most part, I agree with you. To me, most DC Universe books right now feel like they have have a house style that really does not appeal to me. There are some things that I have hope for, but at this point I’m not sure I would bother to try most DC books if you gave them to me for free. And I think that sucks.

  16. Marvel’s loose use of continuity has aided them, but “fake stories are fake stories” is a pretty thin way to examine the multiple types of ‘truth’ in any fiction (Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street: true or false? and so on.) It amounts to conflating two different kinds of ‘false’ to beg the question. It’s exactly because there are different kinds of ‘fake’ that we have a concept of continuity to talk about at all in fiction series, that we can talk about a ‘fair’ mystery within a story, etc. There’s quite a body of accessible academic literature on the subject that you might find interesting.

  17. […] DeBenedetto and Marc-Oliver Frisch take me to task for my Death to Canon post the other day. They raise some good points. I do want to say, as a meager defense, that I […]

  18. A couple of years ago I made the conscious decision to stop buying events just because they were events and only read the books I was actually interested in. I don’t regret it at all, but I’ve had to explain several times why I wasn’t reading Blackest Night.

    It all comes down to this: read what you want. If you want to read the big events, great. If you don’t, you shouldn’t feel obligated to do so.

  19. […] David Brothers encourages you to focus on the stories, not the canon. Don’t buy something you don’t like just because it’s “important,” […]

  20. Thething about being late to the party is that other people have often already said the witty things you had in-mind.

    All I am left with, for now, is my opinion that Marvel is doing a better and better job of both, aiming their universe in a certain direction before pulling the trigger AND telling damned good stories within that given context.

    Dark Reign is doin it for me. Siege has it’s moments. Great stuff, IMO.

  21. This comment comes three weeks late, I know, but I’ve been bugging the guys over at FBB about Marvel Time for months now, so why not bug you, too?

    Behold: The case for continuity!