By Todd Allen
In theory, it was supposed to be a review of “Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics” by Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner. While Tim Marchman does reference the book a few times in his review of the book for the Wall Street Journal, it’s really more of a rant about the failure of the mainstream direct market to capitalize on the popularity of comic book movies. With the fervor you normally expect from a theater critic, Marchman proceeds to rip all sorts of people a new one. And, on the side of restraint, he does stop just short of calling the community inbred.
A few highlights:
If no cultural barrier prevents a public that clearly loves its superheroes from picking up a new “Avengers” comic, why don’t more people do so? The main reasons are obvious: It is for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, and it is clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology.
In a much hyped series from Marvel Comics this summer, for example, the Avengers fight the X-Men for inscrutable reasons having to do with a mysterious planet-devouring cosmic force, a plot that makes no sense to anyone not familiar with ancient Marvel epics like “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” The story is told in two titles, one called “Avengers vs. X-Men,” with a big “AvX” logo on the front, and the other called “AvX,” with a big “Avengers vs. X-Men” logo on the front, presumably so you can keep them straight.
That’s over the top, but he does have a certain point. I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the “Versus” series there, but I’m not sure what I’d make of it if I saw the two series next to each other on the shelf and wasn’t already aware of what they were supposed to be. And I sure wouldn’t hand AVX to someone who’s seen the movie and never read the comics.
The first issues of “Before Watchmen” will be published next month. Among the writers working on it is former He-Man scripter J. Michael Straczynski, who once penned a comic in which Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil. (This is the rough equivalent of having Z-movie director Uwe Boll film a studio-funded prequel to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”) DC is promoting the project with a “Watchmen” toaster, which will allow you to burn the image of Ayn Rand-inspired vigilante Rorschach into your sourdough.
Zing! Although that might not be completely fair to Straczynski, since One More Day was an editorial mandate and something he’s vocally disagreed with. Over on Twitter, Marchman elaborates a bit on that:
@jsnell I think that it’s unfair of him to trash Alan Moore the way he has. (Also for him to blame others for bad comics he wrote.)
— Tim Marchman (@TimMarchman) May 27, 2012
Marchman does have kind words for alternative cartoonists, while noting their work is considerably more mainstream than most of DC’s and Marvel’s. He also is supportive of Robert Kirkman and creator’s rights.
And then you have the parting shot on who’s responsible for comics being so much smaller than their potential audience:
For an industry that feeds on its own past to go 20 years without fresh characters or concepts is death. The most telling sections in “Leaping Tall Buildings” are thus those written about industry powers like Brian Michael Bendis, Joe Quesada, Grant Morrison and Dan DiDio. These are the men most responsible for the failure of the big publishers to take advantage of the public’s obvious fascination with men in capes.
Yes, he said Grant Morrison.
Marchman’s view is that of a non-fanboy who enjoys reading some comics but finds himself frustrated on how insular they’ve become. There’s less room for nuance in a newspaper column and there’s some followup and expansion of ideas as various people have been jousting with him over on Twitter.
One of the things I found interesting was his blaming of Bendis for comics being so insular, when Bendis sold a LOT of Ultimate Spider-Man graphic novels outside of the direct market, back before Ultimatum brought down the line.
He was challenged on this and offered:
@Titan4Ever2488 My son loves USM, has a bunch of trades, and I give Bendis credit for that and other good work.
So yes, there’s quite a bit of back and forth going on.
All in all, I think this tweet sums up a lot of his argument:
There’s at least even odds this article will irritate you. The article and the Twitter feed are both worth a read for a different perspective on mainstream media vs. niche media. (Marchman’s frustrations involve the comics world being too niche.) Don’t allow yourself into getting baited into relating this piece to your local comic shop. The bigger question he asks is about why circulations aren’t higher and the material isn’t widely available.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.