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The TCJ 2015 Year-in-Review Spectacufuck: Part III

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Mainstream Comics in 2015 sounded like a year of mega-events. Crossovers! Other crossovers! Spin-offs of crossovers! SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY! What was it like to read these comics in 2015? I didn’t want to know! At all! Fortunately, joining us to explain what 2015 was like in mainstream comics is our man in the field, local hero, gentleman and scholar Tim O’Neil. Tim was gracious enough to speak with us in November of 2015. God, we were so young…

Thank for joining us, Tim. QUESTION! What it seemed like from afar was that this year, Marvel and DC both had only One Idea: time-space collapsed in their respective universes, in such a way that every bad idea that anyone has ever had got its own “geographic terrain” dedicated to it. The Elseworlds version of Sense & Sensibility in which Batman played Mr. Darcy? That got its own county in Austenvania. That time Ravager 2099 turned out to be a clone of Spider-Man’s ex-wife Marijuana Watson, and Peter Parker showed up naked at his doorstep, drunkenly muttering “technically this isn’t cheating, tiger”? That got its own city: Dallas, Texas. And then all those cities, states, municipalities — they all fought, city vs. city or whatever, but in spin-offs. Then, the spin-offs would go away, and there’d be a kind of soft reboot of each publisher’s entire line of books. Am I describing this correctly?

Why did both companies do the same exact dumb thing this year? Was there some bigger, more cosmic reason that 2015 was the year this idea’s time had come (cue Jim Starlin drawing of a skull floating in outer space)? Answer me.

This is the question. This is the big question. Why did both companies go all-in on the same idea at the exact same time.

There’s no easy answer here, but maybe one place to start is to point out which company had the idea first: Marvel. Secret Wars was literally years in the making, with Jonathan Hickman sitting at home with his slide rule plotting out the dimensions of the story far in advance. Hickman had a plan and he stuck to that plan and he bent the entire company to his will. If you’ve the patience to go back and sift through the years of stories leading up to Secret Wars, you’ll see that the foundation stones were being laid all the way back in 2009 when he took over Fantastic Four. That was back during Dark Reign — you remember that story where Norman Osborn took over the Marvel Universe for a year and made everyone touch his scalp and feel the bristles?

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So as much as people complain about events and about having the entire comic book industry disrupted for the duration of Marvel’s half-year-long What If? experiment, the one thing you can’t say is that the event was at all half-baked. You can argue with the results, you can say you didn’t care for Hickman’s story, or that his approach to plotting is overly schematic, or that it was a mistake to tie the fortunes of the entire company to one storyline – but the one thing you can’t argue is that it wasn’t an actual honest-to-gosh story conceived by a single person with a clear idea of what he wanted to say. Even if you hate the book you have to take your hat off to that. That Marvel let him do it is remarkable – the question of whether they should have done so notwithstanding.

Convergence was the opposite. Convergence came about when DC realized they had to move across the country and that it would be difficult to publish new books from the back of a Ryder truck speeding across the Texas panhandle. So they called in all the folks who hadn’t worked in years – and I mean everybody, people who hadn’t worked regularly since the Reagan administration – to slap together a pile of books to ship while the moving trucks were rolling. And because it was Old Home Week the event was retro-themed as well, with a whole bunch of DC’s most popular dead universes thrown together and forced to duke it out by some gomer named Telos. It was about as good as you might expect. Meaning, not at all. It was awful. Awful.

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I can only imagine the reaction inside Marvel when they heard the Convergence announcement. Marvel is apparently run by a bunch of teenagers who have problems with women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ community, but they know how to publish comics that people want to buy. DC has many of the same problems with the aforementioned women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ community, but they don’t seem to have anywhere near the same grasp on publishing books that people want to buy, to judge from the fact that people don’t actually want to buy the comics they publish. Put an issue of Secret Wars next to Convergence and even if you think Secret Wars is a bad comic, Convergence is worse by any form of measurement you care to use.

Did Convergence change everything in the DC Universe forever? Everything in the DC Universe changed forever in 2005 with Infinite Crisis, then forever in 2008 with Final Crisis, and again forever in 2011 with Flashpoint. Assuming everything in that universe changes forever every three years, the DC universe should’ve changed in 2014 … forever … but I guess it changed forever instead this time in 2015? Has DC apologized to retailers for being late in having its universe haphazardly changed forever? How has the DC Universe changed forever this time? Did DC’s latest round of changes satisfy some need, or fill some hole that hadn’t been filled in a long time (e.g. your mom)? Answer the question. Do it.

Convergence wasn’t intended to change everything – it was intended to fill a two-month gap in the publishing schedule. Because of its retro theme, it operated as a kind of olive branch to any DC fans who may have felt alienated by the company’s strange behavior over the last few years.

Hey! Do you hate the Nu52, the stupid costumes your once-favorite superheroes have to wear, and the unintelligible gibberish we’re calling “continuity” these days? Well, here’s two months worth of old-school flavored fill-ins, with all the characters drawn (sort of maybe a little bit) the way you used to like them back in the day when you actually liked superhero comics and didn’t regard them with the same grim determination as your alimony payments.
So you had the pre-Crisis Justice Society from Earth 2, the WildStorm heroes as they were in their mid-’90s heyday, the Charlton heroes just like Ditko drew them back when Charlton was still a front for laundering mob money, multiple versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and even that stupid Mark Millar Communist Superman.

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DC came out of the event with a slew of new launches that failed miserably. Most of them failed because they were terrible and deserved to die. Doomed? Bizarro? Bat-Mite? Almost literally unreadable. A few were good – people seemed to like Omega Men, even if I found it pretty pedestrian.

What changed at DC had less to do with the comics on the page and more to do with the company behind the scenes. They’re based in L.A. now, right next to Warner Brothers corporate headquarters. What this means in practice is that people are paying more attention to how well – or how not well – the comics are selling. How could they not, if they’re living next door? For years now the walls insulating DC from any significant interference from its corporate parents have been getting thinner and thinner. That they came out of Convergence with a whole slate of comics designed – at least on paper – to appeal to a diverse audience outside the core constituency who will buy DC comics regardless of how crappy they are, and that this slate almost completely collapsed the instant it was released, has to be the source a great deal of concern. That most of the comics were awful, and that many of them were half-assed attempts to ape more successful Marvel books, deserves to be reemphasized, but it ultimately wouldn’t have mattered if they were all fantastic. They didn’t sell.

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The real “crisis” is that DC seems to have forgotten how to produce comics people want to buy, how to hire people who can make those books, and how to hide the fact that their business model is about as healthy as the Ottoman Empire ca. 1913. Batman always sells, and Justice League usually sells, but outside of that – a whole lot of frowny emoticons.

QUESTION! Secret Wars. I tried to read the first issue, actually — “universes” blew up, people were trying to escape from a universe blowing up on a spaceship (what?); Mr. Fantastic was wearing Forbush Man’s pot over his head; lots of shouting. I didn’t stick with it, but I heard that after that, it stopped coming out– but then they just went ahead and soft-rebooted the Marvel universe anyways, and fans now just have to decipher how the Secret Wars ended (and/or may someday perhaps end, if they get around to finishing it) but based upon clues contained in the new books? I hear Doctor Doom is a Handsome Boy Modeling School graduate now, and Spider-Man’s ex-wife gets sexy with all of the Iron Men (not Tony Stark — just the armors, when he’s not around — sounded hot). Are those the clues? Spoiling as many storylines of past, current AND future Marvel comics as is humanly possible, how should the Secret War end? You better have an answer.

I hate to “spoil” (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) your fun, but there’s nothing really to spoil. The ending of Secret Wars doesn’t have anything to do with the new status quo popping up in the Marvel relaunch books, with a couple notable exceptions. Because all the events of Secret Wars are occurring in a separate universe, the ending is pretty much inevitable: at the end of issue #9, the Marvel Universe is getting rebuilt after having been destroyed at the end of Secret Wars #1. And then there’s an eight-month gap between that event and the first issues of the quote-unquote “All New, All-Different” Marvel relaunches.

So there are no clues to the end of Secret Wars to be found, there’s no ending to spoil, other than the very, very vague fact that something happens to the Fantastic Four at the end.

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Secret Wars #1 ends with everything in the Marvel Universe ending, as in, kaput, the entire universe and planet Earth and everything is gone. All the events in Secret Wars #2-9 (and all the tie-ins) occurs in the pocket universe where Dr Doom has constructed Battleworld out of the bits and pieces left over from the demolished Earths. Issue #9 will almost certainly end by looping back to sometime before the events of issue #1, restoring the universe(s) to their state (more or less) before the events of the conclusion of Hickman’s run on Avengers. Most characters won’t remember the events of Secret Wars either– that’s already been established.

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Tom Brevoort has referred to the ending of Secret Wars as “unspoilable,” and I think that is what he means: in terms of what happens, it’s already a foregone conclusion that the universe is restored and everything is rewound to a place right before things blew up. There was no real penalty for shipping the new relaunches before Secret Wars was over because the relaunch books are already shipping with the eight-month gap built into the premise. The new status quos are supposed to be mysteries. In practice what this means is that every book is filled with characters going around being coy about bullshit that happened during the gap – “oh, you remember, the EVENTS that occurred last month that were so important but to which we will only allude to vaguely until the time is ripe” – annoying stuff like that.

Now, I enjoyed it: I was on board because I like Hickman’s comics, generally, and even if there were some stretches I thought held up better than others, I think as a whole it was a pretty enjoyable storyline. It wasn’t really a very good Avengers story, is the problem – people who wanted to see the Avengers flying around the world and fighting Kang and Ultron and Dr. Doom were disappointed. I think if they’d been upfront from the beginning it might have gone over better, if they had advertised the fact that it wasn’t really an Avengers story, so much as a Marvel Universe story that happened to headline many characters who were also Avengers, even though it was really still just an extension of Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four. Actually, typing that out just now, I think they sold it the best they could.

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Because it’s late, and because people got sick of Battleworld after half-a-year spent with the entire Marvel Universe basically on hold, there’s a lot of fatigue regarding Secret Wars. But when it’s all said and done the whole thing is going to read really nicely in one chunk – a very ambitious, conceptually interesting superhero story of the kind fans always say they want even when they’re buying shit like Bendis’s X-Men.

The Secret Wars reboot, the Archie Comics reboot, the Dark Knight Returns reboot, the Star Wars reboot where Darth Vader breaks a wine glass because he found out he’s a dad — what was the most boring thing to happen in comics this year? Or was there anything where you wanted to jump up out of your chair and cheer, like audiences watching the end of B.A.P.S. for the first time? QUESTION!  What’s the state of the conversation around these books? All you have to do is answer the question, then walk away– don’t be a hero — you know there’s only one way this can end.

The books are as good as they’ve ever been, which also means they’re no better than they ever were. There are good books and bad books and everything in between, the important difference being that there’s a slightly more diverse slate of good and bad books for a slightly more diverse readership.

I feel like I outgrew comic books a long time ago, and then realized that I didn’t need to. But I made the conscious decision to stay. I have no idea why anyone makes the conscious decision to come in new, especially as a grown adult who is fully cognizant of the difference between right and wrong. When I encounter people who only got into comics as an adult, I just can’t understand – what about this field was at all attractive? Was it the lack of hygiene? The rampant sexism? The absolute absence of anything resembling professional ethics?

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As admirable as it is that so many different audiences have come to comics and made inroads into the industry, and are seeing themselves reflected in these characters and stories, I’m always left wondering why they thought it was worth the trouble in the first place. The comics industry is a shitty swamp filled with decades of shitty stories told by shitty people hired by shitty companies who have always acted as if they were in a contest to see who could be the most shitty to their employees. I can tell you the plot of each Secret War – even the terrible one Bendis did in 2005. It’s not a “marketable” skill but it’s my niche, it’d be silly to quit. Why start now, though?

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The most important fact about the mainstream comics industry in 2015 is that there are people who still care about these things, who still buy them, and who somehow through force of will keep the whole thing from sliding into the swamp. I know there are, because they’re all on my Twitter feed and all over Tumblr, being enthusiastic and opinionated and somehow completely non-cynical about the whole enterprise.

They’re buying the books, these magically non-broken people. Personally, I consider every day we’re not drowning in the swamp to be a miracle.

(The 2015 TCJ Year-in-Review Spectacufuck concludes in Part IV.)


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