When I spent my spare time dressing in lycra and throwing other men around a squared circle I learnt a lot about how to organise a show to maximise the enjoyment of the audience. It’s a simple theory that my close friend and co-host Mike has quoted at me so many times – a show should always be like a circus. In itself it sounds a bit daft, so let me explain.
The Circus is a single show, you sit down and for an hour or more you are entertained. However, the key is that during that time you will experience so many different acts. It could be the acrobats swinging through the air, the Clowns tumbling, the stunt bikers or the fire eaters risking their lives, if you don’t like one you will like the next, or the next. There will be something that keeps you on the edge of your seat and you will go away thinking about.
We applied the same idea to a wrestling show. You would have a hard hitting match between two technical experts, a fast paced highflying stunt-fest, a dramatic tag team match, a comedy match and finish with a no holds barred hard-core match. They were all wrestling matches but we added in variety so that there was always a match that would stand out for everyone in the audience. 9 times out of 10 this worked perfectly (as long as the matches were good!).
In essence … variety is the spice of life.
So how does this apply to Marvel? I have read Marvel comics on and off for years and enjoyed quite a lot of what I have read. In the last few years however I would say that the majority of what they have to offer is stale and cookie cutter bland. It’s not for want of trying; they have introduced new characters and had some interesting and talented creators work for them. The problem is the majority of the output is a homogenous mass of superhero noise with a couple of outliers that try, sometime successfully, to break the mould (Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight, Tom King’s Vision, Jason Aaron’s Mighty Thor). They are all slight variations of the simplest of acts; flashy crisis / event driven cartoons with snappy dialogue and humour. This sounds like a good comic, right? It would be but when it makes up 95% of the companies output it gets very boring.
Even when they start with a flair for something different, like Jason Aarons Doctor Strange run, they soon fall back into the standard fare. It’s like the “House Style” leaks into everything and eventually makes it all the same. They have the their “Fresh Start” coming in May 2018 which I am sure will be a loud and fabulous tidal wave of more of the same.
DC isn’t completely free of this but they keep it contained and seem to have found a way of using it. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, the stories often run in cycles and they will never push the boundaries too far. At least in the main run. They use it like a warm blanket, a patchwork quilt of continuity and nostalgia. The difference is that they are actually different characters. The Superman books always feel different from the Batman books which feel different from the Green Lantern books etc.
That wouldn’t be enough on its own, the house style does leak in. So what has kept them a step above? They acknowledge that variety is important. They have multiple worlds they dip into time and time again and use them to try something different; Earth 2 in the New 52 era was interesting for this. They have Else World stories, like the current “Batman: White Knight” story that is playing out an idea that could never be used in the main Batman book. In addition to that they have created imprints that have stretched the possibilities of comics and the superhero world. Swamp Thing, Constantine and Sandman all pushed the boundaries in ‘Vertigo’ during the 90s. More recently they have created the new Imprint ‘Young Animal’ which has allowed creators to push the boundaries of imagination with Shade the Changing Girl, Doom Patrol and Mother Panic, all of which can and do interact with the main DC continuity.
So what we have is two companies producing very similar products:
The first company producing a large quantity of similar products centred on a central style. They rely on customer good will and nostalgia or the love of specific characters that then appear in almost every book (Deadpool at the moment). The result is that customers start to drop off as they tire of not being challenged or being given something slightly different.
The second seems to have learnt a lesson. They also court the sense of nostalgia that exists for their top tier characters and have a habit of over saturation for hot property characters (Harley Quinn, we’re looking at you!). However they have also found a way to challenge those ideas and concepts. Moreover, they have created avenues for creators to really push the boundaries of imagination. A sandpit part of the universe that not only has Batman and Wonder Woman but also a snarky English magician con-man and a team of heroes that live on a teleporting transvestite street called Danny.
I will always want something fun and exciting from my nostalgia character superhero books. They are the bread and butter of the comic book industry and when done well can be great, we all love the acrobats. These are not always enough, for me at least, sometimes I want something different like a fire eater. Then I will look to the fringes and check out something like Doom Patrol or Hellblazer. That means my money is going to go the company that will provide me a Variety Show in their superhero offerings.