I have an admission to make. I don’t read comics. I haven’t for years.
It wasn’t always that way. I used to read them – a lot. In the 80s, the comics I read were The Nam, GI Joe, and Groo – all of them mainstream Marvel comics, and none of them superhero stories. Later I graduated to Vietnam Journal and Spawn, before finally discovering manga and leaving American comics more or less entirely. I’m one of those readers that the mainstream comics industry lost through its failure to expand the kinds of stories they tell. The circulation figures show that there’s a lot of people like me out there.
So what happened? Total artistic and creative stagnation at the Big Two. The base of the problem is that for many reasons, the Big Two have come to believe that they can skate by by continuing to to write the same basic stories about the same set of a couple dozen or so half-century-old characters forever.
Part of this is the fault of the companies for refusing to take chances and because of their fear of dealing with with creator-owned characters – but part is the fault of the fans. Well, not all of the fans – but a certain segment of the fans that is becoming an increasingly large percentage of a shrinking market. This is a segment that wants comics to be, better art aside, basically exactly the same as they were when these (now early middle-aged) fans were kids, and to never, ever change. Look, for example, at the negative reaction many fans had to Peter Parker and Mary Jane finally getting married after – what – 40 years? Plenty of people bitched and groaned that “Peter Parker should always be the lovable loser!”. In other words, that the character should never grow, change, mature, or even find himself in different circumstances. That’s the kind of attitude you’ll find in a lot of the hardcore base of comics fans.
The thing is, this becomes a vicious cycle. The more that comics sales shrink, the more that the comics companies listen to their remaining fans, and the more the comics they produce are written to appeal to – and often only to – those hardcore fans. Thus comics goes from an industry (and I’m talking about the comics themselves, not the related movies) with broad appeal to a large audience to increasingly being a niche market that appeals to a small but loud group of hardcore fans.
At very least, this feeds into the mentality of the current crop of editors at the Big Two, who simply can’t get over their own personal Silver Age fetish. You’d think that they might have taken a hint from the rise of manga (at least before that market got destroyed by piracy). If you want to attract new readers, you need to appeal to more people than simply your base of hardcore fans. You need to get new characters in new situations, and to expand the kinds of stories you do. I mean, when was the last time there was even a noteworthy war comic from the Big Two, or a science fiction story that wasn’t based on an already-existing property (Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, etc.)? The Nam, maybe?
In the end, deciding never to take any risks is in itself taking a risk. Yes, the Big Two can coast for a long time on their hardcore fans and on being intellectual property outlets for movies and animated TV shows. But they can never really grow or be what they were like that.