In my last article, ‘Comics; the Banished Medium’, I promised I’d have the answer to why comics declined in our society, and that it would be a compelling account of greed and corruption. Well, I lied - the whole greed story is in my NEXT article.
I thought it would be good to address a tangential idea, first… The idea that perhaps comics just inherently suck, and that’s why nobody buys them anymore. Here we go - hang on to your hats!
(I’m getting that strange, tingly bad-idea feeling right now… I had it at that anime convention, where I hosted a panel, and told everyone that anime looks repetitive and uniform… And now I’m about to go - on the internet - and discuss why comics suck so much. Maybe I'm honing some subconscious desire to see myself tarred and feathered - wonder what Freud would think about that? )
Some would say that comics, as a medium in general, are obsolete. Hopelessly outdated and outmoded by flashier forms of entertainment. After all, nowadays we have big budget Hollywood extravaganzas, immersive and intense gaming experiences, books with better letters, Paris Hiltons to watch on TV, and ‘American Idle‘. It could be said that comics are dying through natural selection, Darwinian failure - that comics, as a medium, are intrinsically inferior.
I could not disagree more. Nothing is inferior to ‘Battlefield Earth’. It has been scientifically proven that Travolta cavorting as a smug Klingon-knockoff is the baseline of entertainment, or in technical terms, “ the absolute zero of ETV (entertainment value), wherein interest and believability engage in a cessation of movement at the molecular scale.”
The medium of comics is far from inferior! It possesses all the potential strengths of any work of literature, combined with the avid visual appeal of dynamic illustrations and pictorial storytelling. The possibility for great work is literally boundless in a concept as simple and flexible as visual literature. Additionally, all the financially stunning graphics and THX ear-popping sound films offer still can’t compete with the simple charm of holding a book while turning a page in captivation and suspense.
Why, for a totally unbiased random example, just look at the critically acclaimed Dreamkeepers saga, with which I may be circumstantially affiliated! And there you have it - proof that comics can be amazing. We should all applaud, appreciate, and give our business to Vivid Publishing, the bold venture behind Dreamkeepers which may, tangentially, possibly be somewhat completely owned by me.
But hell, don’t take my opinion for fact. (Historically a disastrous idea.) Let’s look at some living proof - manga. Manga hit the US like an avalanche in terms of graphic novel sales and popularity. If better films and glitzier games were really the sole reason for the decline of comics, then how could the gargantuan frenzy of popularity over manga - simple, black and white, ass-backwards manga - possibly be explained? Aside from mind control chips, which the Japanese would never, ever make?
You could claim that manga is only popular because anime is shown on TV; but if you recall, Spiderman, the Justice League, Superman, Batman, and a host of others have all had - and recently, too! - popular television series, yet those shows had little impact on dismal comic sales. (Keep in mind, these shows probably have nothing to do with the fact that DC is in reality an appendage of corporate monolith Time Warner communications.) No, the surge of manga success, admittedly, speaks for itself... And stands as irrefutable proof that the medium of comic art is not some universally inferior, outmoded lark.
So, the decline of American comics cannot be excused by the medium. That only leaves one possibility, ladies and gents… It’s the content. Now, entrenched comic industry geeks like to blame the taste of the public for declining sales, as though people have some obligation to go out and support crappy products. But if your story is something that people can easily drift away from, the problem is not with the readers… Sorry, guys, but the current cultural obscurity of comics is well earned.
So, why is the current content in comics so tepid? Why don’t today’s creators just make good comics? I mean, the Japanese can do it with manga, and we nuked the hell out of them in WWII, so shouldn‘t we be able to beat them again? (With comics - not with nukes... Unless doing so is absolutely necessary to reduce creative competition.)
Well, there’s the whole evil greed story for later, but this article would be a good time to get into another culprit in the gruesome death of comics - HPCP.
Yes, HPCP, the same vile influence eroding the quality and integrity of entertainment everywhere. Not even a condom can protect against HPCP. Not even two condoms. What is this terrifying disease, you ask?
Hollywood Piggyback Clone Phenomena.
Yes, I made the name up. No, it is not a joke. This is serious. In a nutshell, HPCP is what happens when big, soulless business infects the creative stage of entertainment. It’s easier to explain by highlighting an example. (Stick with me through this, I promise I‘ll wander back on the subject of comics)
HPCP happened to Disney’s traditional animation program - and resulted in it’s destruction and disbandment. After a series of successful, quality films was topped by the record-smashing ‘Lion King,’ executives and money grubbers took serious notice. The Disney bean-counters suddenly realized how lucrative this whole creativity stuff really was. I mean, Simba just brought in more cheese than their investment portfolios and overseas tax shelters combined!
“Cartoon movies = Megabucks” was the equation that the suits now saw before their eyes. Not content to risk megabucks on the crazy ideas of ’creators,’ businessmen decided to come to the rescue, and manipulate the creative process in order to guarantee a return on their investment. Yeah, I know, it sounds so foolproof.
We all know what happened next. (Well, I do. Was I there? No. Hush.) Using focus groups, demographic studies, and calculators, all-knowing business types picked, edited, and altered the content of subsequent Disney movies, steamrolling over any pesky new ideas from the ‘help‘ (aka artists and creators). The well-oiled suits set up a winning equation from their studies of past hits:
(Main Character w/ love interest) + (Reworked Fairytale / Folktale) + (Goofy animal sidekicks) + (sappy musical numbers) = Megabucks.
The result, of course, was a tired procession of successively watered down plots. Carefully engineered to be inoffensive and universally appealing, the stories started to lose their spine & integrity. All the right ‘ingredients’ were there - but the lack of soul guaranteed failure. The public is actually pretty perceptive at times. Rather than watching characters with real heart and emotion living out their stories on screen, audiences were watching hollow puppets cavort awkwardly through the motions, possessed by hopeful, greedy accountants.
Not only did the clone-movies suck, but they didn‘t make any megabucks. Surprise! Poor shareholders.
Meanwhile, every other major studio out there was trying to grab a piece of the action. Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal, and Uncle Joe’s Film Shack all started churning out 2-D animated movies, trying to piggyback off the successful blueprints of past hits. Anyone who remembers that time period in the mid 90’s will recall these ‘follow-the-formula” animated features that flooded the market, killing the charm of the medium in an explosion of crap. Ka-PLOOIE!
The Disney business-boys handled the declining situation with brilliant insight - by sticking even more rigidly with their heavy handed soul-extracting formula, and avoiding fresh, creative, unproven ideas. The movies got worse, and profits kept slipping. Eventually, in dismal failure, Disney closed down it’s 2-D studio, and cut off production of traditionally animated films; terminating the legacy on which the company had been founded. Meanwhile, Chinese news reported that a furiously spinning coffin erupting from the earth’s crust near Peking was found to contain the body of Walt himself.
The corporate imbeciles responsible for polluting the creative process kept their jobs, but figured they should blame somebody, so they fired all the artists. The workplace was suddenly flooded with broadsided, jobless animators… But that’s a whole other story. Check it out sometime when you’re in a bad mood, it’ll cheer you right up.
The point of the Disney example was to show Hollywood Piggyback Clone Phenomena in glorious action, demonstrating it’s power to annihilate the creativity and value of an entire industry. Luckily they’re not delving into anime, or it could be next on the Endangered List of originality... Key sword? What’s a key sword?
So, here’s the basic HPCP process: Pencils at the ready - there WILL be a quiz!
Once something fresh, creative, and successful happens, the corporate clods smell megabucks and take note. They want to cash in, so they make stuff that mimics past successes, thinking this will give them ’guaranteed’ hits. (Remember all those pathetic novels about teen boys in magic school after Harry Potter hit it big? They were all so good!) Anything original and different is shunned, since it clearly doesn’t fit the success formula. The ‘visionaries’ in charge continue to piggyback off of the older ideas, cranking out hollow clones in pursuit of cash. And, voila! Hollywood Piggyback Clone Phenomena squashes new original ideas out of the industry! Enjoy the dregs.
Ever wonder, after seeing a particularly terrible movie, why these people actually get paid to do what they do? Well, you’ve got it backwards. They do what they do to get paid - period. When cash kicks passion out of the drivers seat, it always shows, no matter how much money they blow on effects.
(PS - Before you tag me as a total moron, let me admit that I am talking in huge, hulking generalities here. There are exceptions that break out of HPCP all the time (Thank God) - and sometimes, if enough talent and critical thinking is applied, imitations can be validly superior to their ancestry. So, just remember, we're talking about a general tendency here, not the whole picture.)
FINALLY back to our original topic! (Cue the applause) …How could this formula - promoting HPCP stuff possibly relate to the vestigial comic industry? How indeedy-doo... At this point, you probably don’t need to be Professor X to piece things together. I’m not the only person noticing this trend, either - industry professionals (and anyone who’s ever seen the inside of a comic shop) have picked up on it. Several have noted;
“..the formula is what took root as soon as it became generally believed there was money in it.”(Steven Grant 2008)
“ Such a marketplace hegemony turns away potential readers, publishers and creators… By limiting creator innovation, the ‘superhero mindset‘ of the Big Two may have squelched reader attention..”(McAllister 2001)
“The current market is not a comic-book market; it’s a superhero market .”
(Jim Valentino 1998)
“The alternative to your standard Marvel superhero comic is... another Marvel superhero comic, only different. X-Force isn't a bad title by any means, but it's absolutely symptomatic of the kind of comic we all too often see posed as the alternative worth pursuing -- a comic book about fame, but with superheroes in it. Or maybe we should look at Joe Casey's Wildcats 3.0, a comic book about corporate politics, but with superheroes in it. How about Stormwatch: Team Achilles, a comic book about covert operations and military combat in the modern world, but with superheroes in it? To the diehard faithful, these books sit in three different genres, but to anyone else, they're watered-down superhero comics.” (Dirk Deppey 2003)
So, yup, it’s going on with comics alright - but it’s unusually bad! HPCP is far more prevalent in comics than in any other industry - it’s so rampant, that the ’Big 4’ (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse) are still imitating stale formulas, even though doing so doesn’t even make money anymore! A diabolical, greed-mongering situation has colluded to sink the entire creative industry into mediocrity… Although, at this point in history, I have to admit I’m using the term ’industry’ very loosely. Play along with me, won’t you?
In my next article, I’ll be talking about why comics are so uniquely and severely crippled by HPCP. There’s something very grotesque that has made a bad tendency far, FAR worse for comics than for any other form of media in history - and no, I’m not talking about Rob Leifeld.