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Monday, August 18, 2014 

"Events" have morphed into major disappointments and crutches

A writer for IGN's admitting that crossovers, once seen as a fun pastime, have transformed into one of the worst ideas that could happen to superhero stories, but is still intent on apologizing for bad ideas and the people who wrote them:
The phrase "event comic" has practically become a four letter word for many comic book readers these days. On the surface, events seem like a great concept. The whole point is that a publisher gathers its greatest and best-selling writers and artists and allows them to tell a big superhero epic on a scale grander than usual. The creators tend to have more freedom to make big, sweeping changes to characters and the world around them, resulting in a major new status quo for the universe in question. The comic gets big hype, sells well, and everyone's happy.

Except that last part seems to happen more and more rarely. Plenty of readers complain about event fatigue. Some make a point of skipping events entirely and dropping books that happen to tie in with those stories. And while events tend to be among the best-selling comics of any given year, recent events haven't made the sales splash books like Civil War and Infinite Crisis did a decade ago. More and more, the consensus is that event comics aren't living up to the hype. Why is that? And why is it that writers who routinely deliver some of the best, most exciting superhero adventures on their monthly titles often fail to meet that standard when they tackle these event comics? Why is the ongoing Ultimate Spider-Man comic always so good, but last year's Cataclysm event wasn't? Why can't Original Sin impress the same way Jason Aaron's work on Wolverine and the X-Men or Thor: God of Thunder does?
Oh come on, the Ultimate line "good" with terrible writers like Brian Bendis and Mark Millar behind the wheel? Even that's fallen off the radar nearly a decade ago, and doesn't sell as big as it used to. On the plus side, at least it does make a better place for "diversity" if that's really so important, but as seen lately even the 616 universe is starting to fall victim to the diversity mishmash.

The part about creative freedom is also pretty awkward. Even back when Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths were originally published, I doubt all the writers had the freedom they wanted. I think a few even left because of that. DC may have suffered worse because they thought a crossover was the only way they could make all the changes needed, when Marvel, by contrast, usually did this individually, title by title. Since 2004, that's clearly no longer the case and crossovers like House of M could be used to make changes that help no one.

And the writer's blowing it if he's calling Civil War and Infinite Crisis a success, even in sales receipts, because, despite all the hype, they didn't sell in the millions, and were just another nail in the coffin of decent storytelling that isn't rife with political intrusions. Plus, what's so great about Aaron's work when he too is operating according to Quesada's visions?
[...] one of the most obvious problems with event comics right now - there are too many of them. It was one thing when they only came around once in a while. Event comics were still a novelty in the days of Infinite Crisis and House of M. They were something to get excited about and look forward to for several months. But as commonplace as events are, there's no chance to build up any sort of anticipation. They're not special anymore. Nor is there adequate opportunity for writers to explore the ramifications of events. That was a problem even when Marvel followed an annual cycle. Writers would craft one storyline where their respective books dealt with the fallout of an event, and then their next storyline would already be setting the stage for the next. That's a pattern Brian Michael Bendis' Avengers books and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's cosmic books followed for years. But now that Marvel publishes at least two line-wide, universe-spanning events a year, the problem is only compounded. There will only be a matter of weeks in between the conclusion of Original Sin and the start of AXIS.
Is that a joke? Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths were "events" two decades before Identity Crisis and Avengers: Disassembled became catalysts for "events" of the worst kind.
Editorial interference also seems to be an issue. It's a massive undertaking to plan a crossover that links the Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and other franchises into one big story. [...]
At least here, they're admitting the obvious, but not quite: many of these crossovers are editorially mandated and planned by the senior editors, giving one or more writers a plan they want them to develop under their pseudo-guidance. Take the death of Sue Dibny in Identity Crisis (and later Elongated Man in 52), for example, the death of Spoiler in War Games, the deaths of civilians in Civil War and the current death of the Watcher in Original Sin. All those are deaths mandated by the editors in charge, whether they'll admit it or not. So too are the villifications of Jean Loring in Identity Crisis, Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Disassembled, and same applies to One More Day in Spider-Man: editorial mandates. How doesn't the IGN writer get that? Yet that could explain why, on the next page of this 2-paged article, he delivers a real groaner:
One of the reasons I suspect Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison have more success than many writers in handling event storylines (Johns with The Sinestro Corps War and Forever Evil, and Morrison with Final Crisis) is that they tend to have a larger degree of freedom. In Johns' case, he's DC's Chief Creative Officer. He's one of the primary people responsible for shaping the direction of the DCU in the first place. And Morrison is pretty much on his own wavelength as a creator. DC seems content to let him do his thing and sort of plan around it after the fact. I don't think it would be the worst thing for Marvel and DC to try that approach more often with these projects.
Sigh. Missing the point again. Johns and Morrison are on a list of writers who've gained the main editors' favoratism, just like Brian Bendis, because their grimy visions are just what Quesada and DiDio are looking for - storytelling laced with bleakness and shock tactics, aimed at a limited audience. Worst, Johns and Quesada have something in common: they both hold a position at DC and Marvel called "chief creative officers". Is it any wonder the former has such bad influence while the latter's can still be felt behind the scenes?
There's also the problem that event comics don't surprise us like they used to. Every major story development is spoiled ahead of time. It was hard enough reading Civil War and learning about Spider-Man's public unmasking or Captain America's assassination by actually reading the stories and not having it spoiled on release day by CNN or NPR. But now these plot twists are being revealed days, weeks, and even months ahead of time. We learned about the Inhumanity storyline long before its genesis in Jonathan Hickman's Infinity last year. We were told that Age of Ultron #10 would introduce Angela into the Marvel Universe long before that issue shipped. Not that you can entirely blame Marvel and DC for this behavior. The Internet makes it extremely difficult to keep secrets. [...]
Maybe they shouldn't be keeping secrets. They certainly shouldn't touting deaths of both major and minor characters as if it were something absolutely wonderful, nor should they be so adamant about keeping badly conceived deaths in place. And they shouldn't be hyping divisive stories like a gay wedding for Northstar, if that's one of the "surprises" the IGN staffer speaks of.
But I think the most fundamental flaw with how event comics are handled these days is their awkward story structure. Civil War in particular established a format where the core event mini-series sets up a loose sort of story framework. The big developments and action-oriented set pieces will happen in the main event, but all of the character development and back-story unfold in various tie-in books and ancillary series. And all too often, the end result is that you have an event with big action but hollow storytelling. All the humanity and character growth is unfolding somewhere else. The Civil War reading experience is greatly diminished without the benefit of Civil War: Front Line and Amazing Spider-Man to flesh out key events. Secret Invasion suffers without the character-first focus of New Avengers and Mighty Avengers. And as much as I enjoyed Final Crisis, its final issue makes little sense without the accompanying Superman Beyond mini-series to provide necessary context. It's as if these stories are being run through a centrifuge.
Still missing the point. Those ongoing series tying into Civil War aren't hindering the hub, it's the hub that's hindering them. The writers are expected to come up with ideas that connect to the hub, yet the end results don't make any sense because these aren't ideas being developed on their own. As mentioned before, in the old days, Marvel usually wrote retcons as stand-alone stories, whereas DC often made the mistake of depending largely on crossovers to justify the retcons, which was ridiculous - Swamp Thing's retconning the plant beast into a separate entity from Alec Holland was done on its own a year before Crisis, and it worked well. Why did DC have to base much of their other retcons on what a miniseries sets up? Let's also remember that, as needless as the first Secret Wars was (and definitely the second, which got a worse reception than the first), it wasn't promoted on the pretense that heroes and co-stars would die spectacular deaths and nothing would be the same again. It was just about the superheroes matching wits with a seemingly all-powerful being called the Beyonder.

Nevertheless, it did have a bad impact on individual storytelling, since some writers were required to make room in the series they wrote for at least one issue telling a tale connected to Secret Wars, and it didn't always seem necessary or essential. What did it add to the stories in the ongoings? Practically nothing. Crisis gets an even colder reception by some because it did away with many parallel dimensions and wasn't necessary if they needed to make changes and updates. And Peter David, at the time he was more talented, quit writing X-Factor because the editors forced him to put some stories on hold for the sake of the crossovers.

And the writer's blowing it when he says that, despite all the embarrassments that have been pretty obvious for years now, he still enjoyed Civil War and Final Crisis. Why can't he understand those contrived crossovers are just the problem with modern superhero tales? Sure, on the surface it might seem like a great idea, but that still depends how you handle it. Maybe if everybody were whisked off to a faraway planet by a warlord who wants to toss them into a mind-numbing game of wits, it would be worthwhile, but it'd work much better if that idea were all done in a stand-alone miniseries or OGN, and not as something that has to be put on display in an ongoing monthly to boot.
[...] Marvel and DC need to focus more on delivering events that tell cohesive, well-rounded stories in and of themselves, tie-ins not required. That was one of the strengths of Forever Evil. And despite my problems with Original Sin, that's been one of its strengths too. Original Sin introduced a concept that can apply to any number of Marvel characters in any number of tie-in comics. [...]
This argument almost works, but here too, he fails to recognize that Forever Evil is a product of a bad idea: political correctness and the obsession with touting the villains as the people to root for. Worst, they're not coherent, nor are they very inspiring. Why must we be told that Tony Stark has some guilt to harbor in Bruce Banner's acquiring an alter ego? That in itself is distorting continuity, something the worst DC crossovers are guilty of too, especially when the characterization is inconsistent with past efforts.
I think both publishers would do well to reexamine how they structure these projects and not rely on the traditional "one core mini-series plus several spinoff mini-series plus several tie-in storylines in ongoing series" so much. Marvel's Age of Apocalypse event had a great structure that I think could work well for other storylines. [...]
While the former note is something I can agree with - they need to stop publishing all these hubs connecting to spokes in a wheel - I fully disagree with the latter part: Age of Apocalypse from the mid-90s was one of the weakest from its time; just a measly excuse to show what the world would be like if Magneto were leading the X-Men, since Legion altered history, with just Bishop to save the day. And some structure it had: the X-books were affected, with Excalibur momentarily renamed "Excalibre" and Generation X changed to Generation Next! Seriously, who needs it?
Above all, there needs to be less event comics overall if these projects are going to regain their dwindling appeal. Like I said, events just aren't special anymore because there's always another one coming right on the heels of the first. It becomes a grind for readers to navigate and for creators to produce.
I can agree with this, since the crossovers were very unfair to many writers who wanted creative freedom to tell a self-contained tale without crossover interruptions. But he screws up when he says:
Writers like Jason Aaron, Jonathan Hickman, Geoff Johns and Charles Soule are perfectly capable of telling epic, creative, event-worthy stories each and every month in their respective ongoing titles.
It's regrettable he keeps falling back on apologies for any of those writers, since Johns is particularly one of the worst writers foisted on the readership, and nobody should be fooled into reading his dreck.
Events are sometimes a necessary evil. They still sell pretty well, and they can be used to prop up the sales of flagging books. Without annual event storylines like War of Kings and The Thanos Imperative to draw more attention to Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's cosmic saga, would that saga have lasted as long as it did? And events can be fun when they're used in moderation. But there's been little moderation involved when it comes to Marvel and DC's output lately. [...]
"Sometimes"? It depends. If the Spider-marriage was an event back in 1987, I can agree that was one well worth the efforts. But much of today's are awful and the editorial mandates are almost tangible. But using them as a last resort for boosting sales on floundering books is a superficial way to make bank, and cannot substitute for good advertising and promotion based on how good the writer's efforts are.
[...] There's no story creators can tell in an event comic that can't be done equally well in a normal comic. And as much as they might provide a sales boost to Marvel and DC, these publishers should be seeking more long-term and forward-thinking ways of driving up sales.

Maybe the best thing that can happen is for the phrase "event comic" to disappear from our lexicon entirely. Once publishers get into that mentality, problems invariably ensue. Simply tell good stories in a clean, accessible format, and readers will come.
Oh, I can agree with the above in principle, but when you've got such pretentious, otherwise untalented writers and editors minding the store today, it's impossible to expect a convincing withdrawal from events, and you cannot expect good storytelling either. The only way long-term ideals can be reached successfully is for the main editors and publishers to be replaced with people who aren't as cynical and filled with contempt as DiDio and Quesada are. That's the why the writer's real argument should be why the publishers and their conglomerate owners should be replacing their leaderships and seeking contributors with more rationale, respect for past continuities and characterizations, and a desire to appeal to wider audiences looking for decent escapism that isn't laced with blatant political tones.

Or, better still, license the publishing arms to people with better visions, or sell them to the same entirely. That's something that almost happened with DC in 1984, when WB offered to license them to Marvel for oversight, but never went through. With the current situation, it could be the right time after all.

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