Today is the day: DC Comics relaunches their entire line with 52 new first issues. Everybody from their heaviest hitters to obscure characters with potential are being polished off and given a spotlight. But why stop there? Today, I present to you 52 OTHER properties DC owns that, with little tweak, may fit in with the New 52.
But it’s time now to step into the ol’ Wayback Machine and go to March 16, 2005, when I observed the fact that, although Manga comics definitely enjoyed a certain popularity in the United States, the same wasn’t as true for European comics. And I asked that vital question: what up with that?
Everything But Imaginary #106: Comic Book Culture Gap
If you’re looking for comics outside of a regular comic shop these days, unless you’re an Archie fan, you best bet is at one of those big chain bookstores that all the kids are talking about. You know, the sort of place that lets you get a cup of coffee, listen to CDs, select movies, buy gift cards for your mom and play around with that magnetic poetry stuff. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find some books there too.
When you go to these big chain bookstores, though, you’ll notice a phenomenon that, frankly, disturbs me. There will be, in most such stores, about a half-bookshelf dedicated to American graphic novels. You’ll have the requisite Spider-Man and X-Men books, and probably some Vertigo stuff like Sandman and Hellblazer. If the shop is particularly good, you may even find some Bone or Strangers in Paradise.
Then, right next to that half-shelf of American comics, you’ll find approximately sixteen shelves devoted to Manga. Entire series collected. Dozens of copies of each volume. Enough to keep the Manga fan in clover for months while the other readers cry for sustenance.
Now I want to make it clear that I don’t have anything against Manga – I’ve read some and I enjoy it. And I don’t fault the bookstores for stocking it – you’ve got to stock what sells. I’m just perturbed that the bookstore audience is so utterly skewed in this fashion, and I can’t quite figure out the reason why. Is it just because it’s the “hot thing” right now? Is it just a fad? Is it like when I was a kid and suddenly everybody in the universe was in love with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Or is it because this audience is finding something in the Japanese comics that they don’t get in American comics? It’s possible, I suppose, but again, I don’t quite get what that is. From the Manga that I have read, I haven’t seen things that are substantively different from what’s produced domestically. The stories are serialized, and often involve sci-fi or fantasy elements. The social morés, I suppose, are a bit different, but not to the point where it’s difficult to understand. I don’t think it’s even a backlash against superheroes, because so much of the Japanese product – everything from Sailor Moon to Pokémon to Robotech – shares many traits of the American superhero.
Then there’s one more thing I don’t understand. (Okay, there are a lot of things I don’t understand – for example, I don’t understand why we drive on parkways and park on driveways, but there’s only one other thing I don’t understand for purposes of this conversation.) If the focus is on something different, something you don’t get in American comics, why are there ten bookshelves full of Japanese comics and maybe five inches of shelf-space given to European comics?
And I don’t mean comics written by a British author for an American audience, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Punch. Having a British writer doesn’t qualify if the comic is originally intended for Americans. I mean, why is it the only comics made for a European audience ever to show up on a shelf are the rare Asterix or TinTin volume? Not that I have anything against either of those, but they’re not all that’s out there any more than superheroes are the only comics produced in America. (Or, for that matter, any more than Yu-Gi-Oh are the only comics produced in Japan.)
American audiences have been slower to embrace European comics, save for the odd 2000 A.D. imports. NBM, of course, has long been bringing European comics to the American market, but a lot of that has been of the… um… “less mainstream” variety (in that they involve certain situations that would never be allowed on basic cable, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more) and they’ve gained a reputation as being a house that prints mostly erotica, an image that they’re now combating with their highly Manga-influenced American-produced kid’s line, Papercutz.
DC, to their credit, is trying to change this with their new deal with Humanoids publishing to reproduce their stock of graphic novels here in America. I’m not sure how much this will help though. Except for the aforementioned Manga fans, who are proving to be reluctant to try anything new anyway, most regular comic book readers have a very fixed budget for their comic book reading. It has to be a pretty special project to get them to drop a large amount of cash on it – like a new Sandman graphic novel, or the JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice hardcover. The chances of getting a regular comic book reader to pay hardcover prices for an unknown (in America) property with unknown (in America) characters by unknown (in America) creators… that’s going to be a pretty steep hill to climb in a lot of cases.
Part of it comes down to personal preference. Even more so than with the Japanese product (at least what I’ve seen of it), I find that American and European expectations of entertainment are different. (And I’m going to use comedic examples here, but this applies to other genres too.) I’m a big fan of the works of Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and of course the geniuses that comprised Monty Python. But I recognize that their brands of distinctively British humor are different and frequently drier than American comedy, which all too often feels the need to bang you over the head with the jokes.
I’m rehearsing a play right now called “The Butler Did it Again,” a murder mystery comedy, and the director keeps telling the actors to punch certain words in their lines, because that’s the word that sets up the next joke. And every time he does that I want to scream, “you’re killing the humor! The audience is smart enough to get the joke, don’t beat them in the face with it!”
Contrast this with a comedy like Shaun of the Dead, which I contend is the funniest movie I’ve seen in the past year. Possibly all millennium (which, I admit, is still young). So much of the comedy in that movie was subtle. Dry. Gags that are happening in the background or buried in the lines that the director and actors trusted the audience to pick up on. That’s British comedy at work.
Then again, that brand of comedy doesn’t necessarily translate very well to a comic book page. Last year John Cleese – one of those aforementioned Pythons, co-wrote an original Elseworlds graphic novel, Superman: True Brit, which was a dry British comedy that showed what Superman’s life may have been like if his space capsule had landed in the British countryside instead of in America’s breadbasket. As big a Superman fan as I am, I don’t know if I would have been willing to pay hardcover price for it if not for the fact that it was written by Cleese and I was outrageously curious as to how well he would do writing a comic book.
The answer, as it turned out, is that he frankly just did okay. It was a cute story, it was a fun story, but that dry wit that works so well for him on TV and in the movies didn’t come across as well while I was reading it. I very much felt like I was reading an illustrated screenplay. If I closed my eyes and imagined the jokes being delivered in the inimitable John Cleese fashion, they were very funny, but when they were just being read… well… not so much.
What is all boils down to, folks, is that we should all be out there making an effort to try some new things, to broaden our horizons, to see what else the world of comics has to offer. And we should be trying to get people outside of that world to peek inside and see what they like. I’m no different than anyone else, I’m guilty too. Heck, if it weren’t for Swedish and Norwegian Uncle Scrooge comics that have been translated into English and reprinted here, you could count the European comic book stories I’ve read on one hand.
Part of me thinks the solution would be to break the comics down into monthly magazines like American comics, but they weren’t written for that format and it may not work. And even if it did, it doesn’t conquer the problem of people being reluctant to try something new. Another idea would be to break them into logical chapters, which may not be right for a monthly comic, and print them in a digest anthology on a regular basis. That might make it easier to sample, but anthology comics just don’t sell anymore, not to American audiences at least – unless it’s an anthology of Manga.
There’s too much great product out there to ignore any one segment of it. I don’t really know what the solution to this problem is, I just wanted to get it out there. Maybe this is one of those times we can figure it all out together.
FAVORITE OF THE WEEK: March 9, 2005
It’s continually one of my favorite comics every month, and this month’s JSA #71 clawed its way to the top of the pile. Geoff Johns’ time travel story, with the Justice Society of the present meeting the Justice Society of the early 1950s, has been a real favorite of mine. I love the classic heroes, and seeing some of the ones that didn’t have the longevity of the Green Lantern and the Flash getting their moments in the sun is really a treat for me. With just one issue to go, I stand by what I said in the 2004 EBI awards – this is the best superhero comic on the market.