After spending pretty much the last 24 hours either sleeping or catching up on my favorite superhero TV shows (namely Supergirl, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash – I was about 3-4 episodes behind on each) I popped online and happened across the latest controversy to hit the comics community, Alex Zalben’s article For Comics to Survive, They Must Align with Movies & TV on CBR and, after following it up with the Beat’s semi-response piece The Sin City Doctrine: Are movie//TV tie-in comics the way forward for the industry? now seemed like a good time for me to get back onto my blog and throw my hat into the ring.
For the record, I didn’t find Zalben’s article particularly controversial, apart from maybe his opinion on what the Big Two should do about their loyal, old-school readership (“F–k ’em”) which was seemingly written purely to raise eyebrows. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole article was written with a side-eye towards raising a ruckus in order to get clicks, but that’s not a bad thing; nothing raises awareness like a controversial opinion. And this topic – specifically the pros and cons of aligning the comic-book universes/characters/release schedules with the Movie/TV adaptations – is definitely worth the discussion.
I also think that people should take his article as it was intended, as a conversation starter.
— Alex Zalben (@azalben) March 3, 2016
Not definitive fact but an opinion of one person – an opinion that the author himself contradicts as you move through the article, and that he himself admits on Twitter:
To be fair, I also disagree with myself in the piece. Also, hi Tim! https://t.co/FHYUAEO0gt
— Alex Zalben (@azalben) March 2, 2016
I have my own opinions on this topic that I’ll get to, but to bring them into a readable, cohesive article and not the rambling tangent-spinning mess my thoughts tend toward, I’ll be commenting on the specific points that Zalben makes and see where that leads us. So if you’ve not yet read that article, click on the link above and then head back here. Similarly, Heidi Macdonald’s Comics Beat response is worth reading too as, while it’s definitely not as controversial or confrontational, it has some valid points that I’ll be referencing.
Firstly, his Supergirl scenario at the top of the piece is spot on, and touches on the opinion that I’ve also held for many years; for a comic character on TV/ in movies to draw their fans into a comic shop there needs to be something in that shop for that fan to pick up cold and love. For that leap from screen to shop to happen, comics publishers need to produce ‘Evergreen’ books.
Evergreen books aren’t overladen with continuity, they are relatively stand-alone and they contain a pretty universal, or at least accessible, version of the character that most will recognize. Books that can sit on shelves all year round; hence Evergreen. DC has a great stable of evergreen Batman titles; Year One, Long Halloween, Killing Joke. Dark Knight Returns doesn’t have a recognizable version of the character I’ll admit, but it plays on the tropes and preconceived version of the character that even the most casual of fans will know and spins a stand-alone yarn that needs no prior reading.
Batman is a rare case however, and its arguable that one of the reasons he is so popular is because of this raft of easily accessible books. The rest of DC’s lineup of characters aren’t so lucky, and ironically the TV characters – i.e. those ones that need evergreen books more than any other – are the worst for this. As Alex states:
(the DC comics) version of Supergirl had little to no resemblance to what is currently airing on TV… She was an angry, powerful alien who landed on Earth as a fully-costumed adult, battled Superman, and basically had no friends.
Supergirl isn’t alone. Flash, Green Arrow and the Legends have hardly any (if indeed any at all) comic books that I could point a friend or wannabe fan towards. Regardless of what you think of Mr Zalben’s options (we’ll get to those), this fact alone needs to change.
Marvel are no better. There’s a reason the CBR piece references Civil War specifically. Aside from the movie coming out (making it a topical choice), the simple fact is there are hardly any other evergreen Marvel titles out there. They are getting better at it – I could make a case for Fraction’s Hawkeye as a great stand-alone book for a newcomer – but it’s happening very slowly and only so in the last few years.
Name a Marvel character and then try to think of an evergreen book that you could recommend. Let’s use Movie/TV characters specifically to keep it on topic:
- Captain America: Nothing from the last few years is free of any greater continuity; Steve Rogers is aged and Sam Wilson now holds the mantle (for now at least). No, for this I’d have to go with Winter Soldier. The movie sticks pretty faithfully to the source (as much as it can anyway) so that would help a new reader, but even that is part of a greater narrative by Brubaker so not ideal.
- Iron Man: This is a tough one. Maybe Extremis? Anything much older, like Demon in a Bottle is great but can be off-putting to people coming straight from the movies. This is bad. Robert Downey jr is killing it up there on screen and there’s nothing in the comic shop to support and piggy-back on that success. A major fail.
- Thor: The mighty Odinson fairs better I think. Aaron’s recent run – Thor: God of Thunder – is great and doesn’t rely too much on continuity. Thor: The Mighty Avenger is fantastic too – an all-ages run from a few years ago sure, but a brilliant version of the character.
- Hulk: a couple maybe. Planet Hulk is the best example. It needs a little setting up but no more than a few lines of exposition. World War Hulk can follow that one but we’re looking for truly stand-alone books.
- Avengers. Nothing recently. Hickman’s run is superb but not for the casual fan or film-lover. Aside from the aforementioned Civil War (which is itself not without its continuity-laden problems – if you have no knowledge of Goliath for example his death means nothing, and to find out he’s been killed by a robot Thor only raises more questions, like where is the real Thor?!) I can only really think of the Bendis/DeConnick Avengers Assemble book, which purposefully set out to appeal to film fans. You could go back further to Infinity Gauntlet (and we no doubt will in a year or so) but that’s full of older versions of the characters so a harder sell. Not only that but Avengers have books that actively put fans off, like Age of Ultron. It has the same name as the movie (or rather the movie has the same name as the book – the comic did come first after all) but it shares no other resemblance to the film. That’s not the book’s fault admittedly, but it really doesn’t help a new fan.
- Deadpool: Marvel’s equivalent to Batman – a rare exception that if anything proves the rule. ‘Pool is almost made for stand-alone stuff, and once you’ve seen the movie (again, it’s faithfulness really helps the comics here) you can practically pick up anything and love it.
So what’s the solution to this? Should we ditch decades of continuity – or even years-long story arcs – and never again have a world that builds on itself? Should we only appeal to the fickle, fair-weather fan that may wander in off the street looking for something that reminds them of that movie they like? Do we really hit the reset button on everything in favor of a more aligned universe? Well, let’s stick with Alex’s article and go through his options.
The first option on the table is aligning the release schedule with TV and Movies. This is a no-brainer, and something a lot of comic shops try to do anyway. When Deadpool hit theaters my local comic shop had a large display of his books in prominent position. This goes back to the above though – the display is only as effective as the titles it displays. If the books aren’t there, those shelves will be bare (uh-oh. I’m rhyming). The Big Two need to release books (either single issues or trades) that coincide with these movies and TV shows.
That just makes perfect sense to me, and the examples Mr Zalben gives are so ludicrous as to almost be fake, but unfortunately they are all true: there really was no Agents of Shield book until recently. The Legends of Tomorrow book really doesn’t contain ANY of the same characters as the TV show. This is insane to me. What’s the point of even having a Legends of Tomorrow book if you’re not going to have the same cast as the show?! So maybe the characters aren’t all in the same place in current continuity as they are in the shows. So what? This is comics! Make some s**t up about why they need to get together, or start off with the cast you recognize and then slowly move it away so that by the end you have the series you wanted (if that’s so important to you) and you get to introduce TV fans to new comics characters.
It’s mentioned in the article that these media projects are known far enough in advance to really get this in check, and that’s true (a Daredevil/Punisher series should not be coming out months after the Netflix show, it should be coming out at the same time, waiting for the fan when they come into the store) but I’ll go one step further:
Get out in front of these things and produce content that preempts the movies/TV shows.
How awesome is it when you come across a reference or character in a movie or TV show and you’re in on that joke? How cool is it when you get that reference?Now how great would it be to produce new-reader-friendly books that introduce those characters or references so that when the movie/TV show comes along a few months later they too can join in on that feeling? This approach would have its fair share of spoiler problems – I can already imagine sites scouring the previews catalog for clues to what will be upcoming in TV shows and movies based on the comic book releases. To be honest this is already sort of done with upcoming trade solicitations.
This is however just one example of how the comics schedules can align more with movies and TV, and I really can’t see why anyone would disagree with the idea that a greater alignment of the schedules between the two would be a good thing. As I say, it’s a no-brainer. It’s ridiculous that there isn’t a prominent Supergirl comic out right now.
So what’s Alex’s second option? “Wipe It Clean, Make the Comics All About the TV and Movies”. Here’s where we differ, which is understandable, because here’s where the article gets the most ‘controversial’, so clearly opinions are bound to be different. Again, this is Alex Zalben throwing ideas out there to start a conversation. I’ve not seen any personally but if there’s any vicious push-back to this – and I’ve no doubt there is – then it’s entirely pointless and small minded. Its purpose is to start the conversation, nothing more.
There’s a couple things to unpack here. Firstly, the idea that the comics should ditch what they have and immerse themselves completely in the movie and TV universes. Marvel’s Star Wars comics are cited as perfect examples – books that weave seamlessly between the movies, expanding and enriching the overall experience. Personally I’m loving what Marvel are doing with the Star Wars line, and as Alex states, they feel just as relevant as the movies. When I read those books I feel as though I’m finding out more about the same universe that the films live in, not some alternate universe where this ‘might’ have happened (not a knock on Dark Horse, I enjoyed their comics too).
So to take that concept and expand that out across the entire Marvel and DC universes, in theory, seems like a great idea. I’m reminded of the Matrix universe here, and what that achieved with such an alignment. The movies, the game (Enter the Matrix), the comic books and the Animated feature all took place in the same universe and all complimented each other really well. Despite my opinions on the second and third movies (that’s for another time) the cohesion of media properties only enhanced the overall experience. So being able to see Captain America in the cinema and then read comics that pick up right where it left off is a great idea.
Here’s why it sucks.
Ok, so maybe not sucks but at least here’s why I disagree with it as an idea. Zalben’s statement that the comics need the movies far more than the other way around might very well have a basis in fact, but to reference Heidi Macdonald’s article over on Comics Beat:
“As I’m fond of saying, comics will survive no matter what”
I couldn’t agree more. Yes, a certain amount of alignment is a great idea, but scrapping everything in favor of squeezing in around movie and TV continuity is not only short-sighted but highly impractical (again, this is what I think of the suggestion and not Mr Zalben who, as I’ve not already mentioned I should state clearly here, did a fantastic job on this article. He himself even contradicts this option later in the article too. More on that shortly).
To follow this idea to its logical conclusion, take Marvel as an example. All of its Movies and TV shows live in the same shared universe. If we were to fully integrate all of the comics line, that definitely helps things. To totally absorb the comics into that universe would make the comics nothing but an extension of the cinematic universe (or MCU). ‘That’s fine’ you may think, because readers want to read about Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man fighting alongside Chris Evans’ Cap.
To truly align these universes would be a continuity nightmare.
You only have to look at Agents of Shield (the TV show, not the new comic). In hindsight it’s starkly obvious that the reason the first season felt like it never really got off the ground was because it was stalling for time until Winter Soldier hit theaters, at which point they could get back involved. Sure, it made the show feel relevant, but it also demonstrated how tricky it is to uphold this shared continuity and still produce media that stands independently on its own merits. Arguably Agents of Shield is nothing without the movies (why would you care about Coulson being alive if you never knew he was dead? Why would you care about a Hydra uprising in the show you’re watching if all the exciting plot development didn’t even happen in the show you’re watching?). The movies though? They would be exactly the same without Agents of Shield.
So it would go with the comics.
There’s no doubt where the money and power lies in the relationship. The movie and TV industry is the dominant side, comics are struggling to keep up (heck, that power dynamic is the whole reason we’re even having this conversation). So if you think that the movies or TV shows would in any way hinge or turn on a comic book series you are very mistaken. Can you imagine a movie only making sense if you’d picked up a comic book the week before? No. What would happen is that the comics would lose all sense of relevance in order to fit around other media.
Why show a significant event happening in a comic that would at most reach 200,000 readers when you can make a spectacle of it and reach 2 billion?
Even a cursory glance at DC media would invalidate this as an idea too. For one, the movies and TV shows don’t share the same universe, and more than that, the TV shows don’t share the same universe as the other TV shows (the Arrow-verse being a pleasant exception). So to create one cohesive, shared universe you would have to start it all over again – comics, movies, TV shows, the lot. Or at least have some media spanning Crisis that would bring them all together. I wouldn’t put that past them actually.
So that’s the extreme conclusion of this idea, but that’s not to say this option doesn’t have merits.
I’m a Marvel guy, so seeing anyone suggest that the universe I’ve grown up with and loved should all be replaced just because the movies are popular is bound to evoke an almost feral reaction within me. My experience with DC comics however is fairly limited, so if someone were to align the comics to be more like the TV shows – shows that I love – then I’d have little issue.
So you can see why I’m conflicted by my own hypocrisy.
We’ve already seen it happening to a certain degree. Nick Fury is no longer a white guy chomping on a cigar, he’s a Sam Jackson lookalike just waiting for a badass trenchcoat. Tony Stark had an A.I. system called Jarvis right up until the latest series, and the Arc Reactor idea fitted in seamlessly even though I’m pretty certain it wasn’t nearly as prominent before the movies. Similarly Diggle and Felicity are now in the comics, as are Agents May, Fitz and Simmons. While I disagree with scrapping the old universes for something new, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater (as my nan used to say).
The comics can do more to be aligned than they currently are.
Again, I think Marvel do this better (I would) – if they eased up on the continuity a bit, most of the characters are already pretty recognizable to casual fans, so focusing on stories that don’t rely heavily on continuity could go a long way to drawing those coveted movie-goers in. It may feel like I’m going back to the well, but evergreen books starring recognizable characters – that’s what you need.
There’s no reason why there can’t be overarching narratives that loosely tie everything together either. You needn’t lose that sense of relevance to a whole, or that sense of a shared universe. If anything that would be encouraged; after all, both the movies and TV shows are striving for just that.
Taking the core of the characters, going back to what makes them great and pulling together influences from comics, movies and TV would go a long way to bridging that gap between screen and store. If everything Geoff Johns tells us about Rebirth is true (the upcoming relaunch of all of DC’s line of comics) then that could also moves things toward an ideal shared space.
Having a single universe that these characters all inhabit isn’t necessary. What we need is a cohesive, shared meta-space in which these properties align in idea and concept if not exact story-line.
People aren’t idiots; they know the comics are different from the movies and TV. I don’t care if the comics are in a different universe than the movies. If however I watch The Flash and I want to read the comics, I’d like to know that I can pick up a series and follow along without a lengthy wiki search or ‘Previously on’ page.
Let’s finish with the final option in Mr Zalben’s article, which sort of contradicts the previous option (it’s even titled ‘Ignore Everything I Just Said’) yet contains a lot of interesting and valid points.
The studios need your material, but in order for them to use it, you have to create it.
So stop pouring resources into endless sequels and variations on movie and TV properties. That false bravado I mentioned above? Let it turn into a healthy swagger. Allow yourselves to experiment, to change, and grow. And not just with the creative, but with the publishing schedules, and how you engage fans and stores.
This is great! It makes perfect sense! It totally contradicts the previous idea!
Essentially, the movies and TV are only as good as the source material, so if you’re going to build your comics universes around those properties, you lose all influence upon those properties. Instead you resort to mediocre fill-in stories that the movies haven’t the time to expand on.
If you step up to the plate with new content though, you change the dynamic. What’s being said here is – if you create bold, new characters and epic, engaging story-lines, then the movies and TV shows will have more material to draw inspiration from. There’s an element in the article that could almost be read as ‘the movies and TV shows are already running out of ideas, so we better create more stuff for them!’ which again panders to the same old dynamic. I’m not saying that the power is in any way ever going to swing the other way but let’s take this idea and move it a step further.
Don’t create bold, new, innovative content just to give the movies more material; do it because it’s the right f**king thing to do for a struggling industry. Yes, there’s an element of ‘If you build it they will come’ about this but it’s more than that.
As the article concludes, comics can’t exist in a vacuum. This is a different world now; fans are different and what fans want is different. Yes I want a Flash book that contains the same Flash that I know and love from the TV show. Do I want a book that continues where the show left off? No, because if I did, I’d be reading the digital series that is already out. I’ve heard it’s good, I just haven’t really had much interest. You know why? Because I have the TV show! What I want is accessibility.
Whether you tie your comics down with years of comics continuity or years of movie/TV Show continuity doesn’t matter, the end result is comics that are tied down.
I want to be able to pick up a Flash book and know exactly who they are and what I’m getting. More than that though, it needs to be a good story, written well with great art.
That’s it. That’s all that’s needed. Good stories, written well, with great art. If you build it they will come, and so much more. You don’t have to ditch decades of continuity. You don’t have to have everyone physically sharing the same universe. All it takes is a little alignment shift. You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just create great comics, accessible to all.
So will comics have to ‘join or die’? Will comics survive if they don’t align? Of course they’ll survive. They always do.
But why just survive when you can thrive?