Monday, February 19, 2007

“Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

That's how the Fortress Keeper at Fortress of Fortitude opens this week's comics overview. Good question. Let me think.

Many years ago, back when I first started reading comics, they contained up to three separate stories each. With rare exceptions, it didn't matter in what order you read them: Each stood alone, and told you the essentials you needed to know about each character involved (even the regular characters like Superman, whom one would think the average comic reader knew about).

At the time, a title was in trouble if it sold less than a hundred thousand copies per issue. And since each comic contained a fine-print Statement of Ownership from its publisher once each year, we could tell how well it was selling.

Soon readers became sufficiently sophisticated to understand the concept of an "inventory story". It became necessary to explain this when storylines began to sprawl across months or years of a title's life. Occasionally a story would appear that ignored the ongoing threads, often by a different artist's hand. Marvel, as usual, made a joke of this and let the readers in on it, via references to the "Dreaded Deadline Doom."

The underlying assumption that made the joke work was that the Schedule Is The Schedule, and on the third Tuesday of the month, by God and Mort Weisinger there was going to be a new issue of Action Comics on the stands. That comic not being there simply wasn't an option. Those hundred-thousand readers would buy something else, perhaps some other publisher's product, and that was unacceptable.

Flash forward to the 21st century. Thirty thousand circulation is a top-of-the-line title. All-Star Batman's publication frequency has become a joke, as Superman-Batman's and Supergirl's were before it. Marvel has delayed the publication of its entire line, including an anniversary issue of its first flagship title, Fantastic Four, because Civil War is running late.

But inventory stories cannot be used because all stories (with rare exceptions) are now serialized. Instead we have situations like Action Comics and Wonder Woman (and Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk), where hopelessly-late story arcs are simply abandoned. Maybe we'll get back to them: Maybe we won't.

Complete story in 1967: four to six cents. Sometimes twelve.
Complete story in 2007: eighteen dollars. If they finish it.

Stories that begin and end. That's what I miss.

1 comment:

Fortress Keeper said...

Well said. Much more eloquent than my own rather hysterical scree.