As I write this, both the major american comic publishers are publishing lengthy and involved cross-overs. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this phenomenon – and it’s one which is pretty much standard in the shared universes which are so rife in comics, but less frequent in other media – this means that there are stories being told which run through a number of separate comics, but which, when read in sequence, should create the sense of one big story.
This is moderately rare in other media, but comics have been doing it for decades; in the 1980s, when Marvel released ‘Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars’, all the major Marvel comic characters (including Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and all the other heroes and villains alike) were whisked to another world where they… er, well, as I understand it, pretty much fought for a series of 12 issues. There were a number of related issues of other comics published featuring the ramifications of what happened during the ‘Secret Wars’, perhaps the most notable of which was that Spider-Man got a new costume (which I always thought was pretty spiffy, but let’s face it, it was unlikely to stick around for marketing reasons if nothing else).
In 1985, DC Comics (publishers of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) published a series called Crisis on Infinite Earths. For DC, this was as much a house-clearing exercise as it was an event, or gimmick to sell more copies. For a long time, DC had tried to explain the fact that many of their characters had been superheroes for so long (Superman fought Nazis in WWII, after all) by saying that the characters existed on a number of parallel earths within the DC Universe. So the Superman who fought in the war was in fact from Earth-2, and as such he had white hair. If memory serves, the Batman of Earth-2 was retired and married to the Catwoman of that alternate, but I could well be wrong. I never really understood the way the alternate earths worked in DC continuity, and looking at it now, whilst I can see a lot of people went to a lot of trouble to make the situation make some kind of sense, howsoever convoluted, to my mind it looks like the kind of world-building that suggests creators in danger of falling in love with the creations. Which is rarely good for subsequent creativity, I feel.
Anyway, DC merged all their earths into one, bumping off a substantial number of alternate earth versions of their heroes (such as the aforementioned elderly Superman), and thus providing themselves with the perfect opportunity to ‘reboot’ some of their characters and modernise them. Perhaps the most visible example of this would be the fate of Jonathan and Martha Kent, who died when Clark was young in the pre-Crisis era, and thus in the Superman film starring Christopher Reeve, but who are alive and living in the post-Crisis reboot of Superman, and thus are on hand to provide advice etc in the ‘Lois and Clark’ and ‘Smallville’ TV shows.
With me so far ? I can understand if not. The thing is, both Marvel and DC found these cross-overs to be extremely lucrative; the completist mentality is a prevalent strand in many comic readers, and so large numbers of comics were sold by virtue of being ‘tied in’ to the event in question. Over the next decade or so, both companies (and many less well known ones) ran cross-overs, despite them being pretty blatantly a sales ploy more than anything else: Secret Wars II, Legends, Millennium, the X-tinction Agenda, DC One Million, Underworld Unleashed, the Children’s Crusade, Total Eclipse, the Age of Apocalypse, and many, MANY more. All pretty difficult to follow unless you bought all the component parts, and not necessarily much more coherent if you did, and damned expensive to do so, as you were effectively committing to buying the vast majority of a publisher’s output for a month or more (USA comics are published monthly on the whole, but ship in different weeks, so you could buy the Superman tie-in in week one of a month, the Batman tie-in in week two, and so on).
As I say, both publishers are currently in the process of running large cross-overs; DC found considerable success with a mini-series (that is, limited to a number of issues – 6, I believe) called Identity Crisis written by novelist Brad Meltzer, which gained coverage in the mainstream press for its dark story elements. This led to a number of associated mini-series (the Rann-Thanagar War, Villains United, the OMAC Project), which led into the frankly bewilderingly-titled Infinite Crisis, which is being published as I type this, and will in itself lead to a whole slew of follow-on stories and spin-off series.
Marvel, for their part, have recently finished a series called House of M (a semi-alternate world story in which Magneto, the X-men villain, rules the world), which – as far as I can understand it – had led into more crossovers, called Decimation and the like.
I sound vague about all this, don’t I? Well, the simple reason is that I’m not reading any of them. I like only a handful of superhero comics, and though I go to my local comic shop pretty much each week, there are fewer and fewer comics which I feel the inclination to buy. As much as I may like the character of Batman, I’m not going to buy a copy of the monthly comic if it’s the 13th tie-in chapter to a much bigger story which will necessitate my buying more stuff. I’m stupid, but I’m not made of money. So I end up buying collected editions (in which I’ll get a complete story) or trying new stuff, which is probably healthy.
But what appears to be going on is that the major US comics publishers have decided not to try to reach out to new readers or expand their dwindling marketplace in any fashion, but instead to run a series of stories which are designed to wring every last penny out of their current readership. This happened in the 80s and 90s, and whilst it provided a short-term infusion of cash, it was ultimately unsustainable, and did little if anything to provoke any kind of increase in overall readership. Instead it’s appealing to a completist mentality, one which has both money and time enough to fixate on whether the new continuity allows for the idea that Beppo the Supermonkey might still live somewhere in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. It’s a mentality which probably medically borders on Asperger’s syndrome, and socially is known as nerdy at best, and whilst I could debate the ethics of the publishers shamelessly exploiting the customers with endless cross-overs, I think the worst aspect of it is that it has to be a short-term thing, both for the readers (“What comes after ‘Infinite Crisis’?” asks the fanboy, to which the correct answer is probably “Shaving”) and for the publishers (“No, I don’t buy comics any more” and the like).
This, then, is the reason for the provocative heading to this post. I’m not saying that ONLY nerds read comics, but the publishers have recently started to aggressively target their most obsessive and completist readers, to the exclusion of other readers … readers like me (meanwhile, manga grows in popularity, stocked and sold out in real bookshops, no less).
You’ll also notice that I refer solely to the US publishers here. The main reason being that the mainstream UK comics industry is very limited indeed, essentially being comprised of a handful of comics aimed at young children, 2000AD and Judge Dredd comics, and Viz. A depressingly small number of titles overall, and thus with limited cross-over potential. Though I’d probably pay good money to see a Tweenies-Judge Dredd-Buster Gonad team-up.