Pop Will Eat Itself

Something I read recently about the rise of horror comics in the 70s at the same time as horror was rising in other media (The Exorcist getting Academy recognition, Stephen King on bestsellers lists, and horror series like Kolchak on TV) made me reflect on pop culture trends and what they mean for today's comics.

Mainstream comics have always been a bit of a mongrel medium, poaching from every other genre (superhero comics are particularly eclectic, mixing crime drama, science fiction and fantasy, plus whatever else you might want to throw in the pot), and exploiting the fads of the moment as best they can. That's not to say comics can't be original and create their own trends, but like movies and television, they do tap into the zeitgeist and whether you want to call it a reflection of the day's concerns or cynical Roger Corman-like plagiarism, popular trends do have an effect on comics, especially work-for-hire comics.

Looking back, some trends are pretty easy to spot. The popularity of westerns in the 50s led to superhero comics getting repurposed for cowboys and gunslingers. The 60 brought back the superhero, replacing WWII with the Cold War. The 70s were all about horror, yes, but also touched on the blaxploitation and kung fu crazes. The 80s' hottest titles, Uncanny X-Men and New Teen Titans, parallel a rise in popularity for television soap operas and perhaps even an uptick in teenage angst as the decade grows more and more repressive.

But while external factors did play a role in molding comics in the 90s and 00s - grunge griminess in the anti-hero wave, and 9/11 spawning the hero as soldier/government stooge, Civil War, etc. - these last couple of decades have been an exercise in looking inwards. Crucially, the 90s comics boom meant comics themselves were the popular fad and so comics started cannibalizing themselves. If some character was popular, it became a franchise. If a franchise was popular, it spawned copycats. If an artist was popular, imitators came out of the woodwork. It wasn't all bad; the success of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing led to the British Invasion that led to Vertigo and some of the medium's most interesting comics. But it really was a case of pop eating itself. Why imitate whatever's popular on TV when we're moving comics by the millions?

It was a recipe for disaster, creatively if not necessarily financially. The bubble burst, the fad ended, and what we were left with (except for the previously mentioned exception) were ugly, risible comics we still mock and hold up as examples of bad art today. But what ABOUT today? What's popular? Not comics, certainly, with numbers as low as they've ever been and the Big 2 churning out more press releases - desperately trying to attract media attention - than JNT did during 80s Doctor Who. No, what's popular today is live-action superheroes.

On film and on TV, superhero projects are dominating media attention and box office, not necessarily translating that popularity back to the comics. It's a different way of pop eating itself than the more direct ouroboros of the 90s, but that's what it is nonetheless. The film industry consumes its comic book inspiration, and its products are in turn consumed back by the comics industry, in an infinite loop, with a risk of losing quality like the umpteenth copy of a bootlegged cassette tape. Just look at the comics. If a superhero or team is a hit on film (or is meant to become a hit), its owner starts to invest heavily in its franchise at the detriment of all others. How many Batman books do we have? How many Avengers books? The superhero film fad also corresponds to the rise of photo-real comic art, which I personally don't like. We've got entirely too many comic book artists trying to emulate another medium instead of innovating with the medium they're meant to be working with. I've read moaning about Aja's Hawkeye not telling a story in a straightforward way, but by God, at least that book is doing things you can only do with the comics form! When summer events launched by comics companies are referred to as "blockbusters" and reprints with bonus content titled "Director's Cuts" absent any "director", it's hard to see the model as anything but.

Like all fads, superhero films will peter out and be replaced by the next big thing. Comics will once again draw their influences from something other than themselves. They must. That borrowing from other media and genres has always been part of their DNA, and it's what's made comics history so interesting and adaptable. That's the good news (unless you really really like superhero movies). Another piece of good news is that the best writers and artists in the industry are fighting off the staleness of the current trend, either in work-for-hire comics or, mostly, by going to the independents and crafting their own diverse narratives. Maybe the next big thing will be found there, or rather, be reflected there.

All I know is, I'm quite eager to get out of the feedback loop mainstream comics are currently trapped in.


Anonymous said...

And maybe then I'll be able to finish my 80s Hulk run without having to pay fifty dollars for a d----d raccoon.

- Jason

Siskoid said...


Anonymous said...

So supposedly Hulk 271, a Copper Age issue I don't have yet, is the first appearance of "Rocket Raccoon", who is a 'hot' character because he's going to be in the upcoming live-action Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Back issue prices have exploded. It's now a 'wall book' at comic conventions.

I like to collect comics, but I'm on a budget these days. Kids, mortgage, all that. You would think the least I would be able to do would be to build long Bronze / Copper runs of some lower-tier titles I enjoy, but every so often the movie hype settles on some previously obscure character and drops a turd in the middle of my want list.

So I hope you are right about live-action superhero movies being a fad that will pass. For the sake of us dollar-box divers who are also incorrigible completists.

- Jason

Siskoid said...

Of course, I discussed a lot of these fads in terms of DECADES, so you may keep despairing.

jdh417 said...

Well, the comic book characters themselves are the franchise. They are worth way more than the artform to their owners. Comic books are simply one media they are franchised out to. Unfortunately, the comic book companies have deemed that their comics only appeal to collectors and hard-core, long-term fans. Looking at Walking Dead, I see comics as a basically a long-form storyboard pitch for movies and TV.

Craig Oxbrow said...

It would be great if they took the right lessons away from the superhero movies' successes and made the comics fun.

Siskoid said...

And for the most part, I think Marvel has understood this lesson. Hawkeye, Daredevil, Captain Marvel, FF, Hulk, Scarlet Spider, Young Avengers, Superior Spider-Man (and his Superior Foes) and Wolverine (to name only those I read) are very fun reads.

It's probably not a coincidence that Marvel's movies are more fun than DC's. I think each movie franchise mirrors its comic book counterpart fairly well.

LiamKav said...

I keep expecting the super hero film bubble to birst. But if we say that it started with the first X-Men film (things like Blade were more testing the water), then it has been going for 13 years, with no signs of letting up. That's a LONG bubble.

Siskoid said...

Think of it more as the western bubble. There were a few westerns before and are still westerns today, but the era of wall to wall westerns is over. Same with superheroes. One superhero movie a year (from X-Men on) isn't the bubble. With multiple converging franchises like Marvel's, Fox's and WB's, and superhero shows on TV, both derivative and original, we're definitely in the bubble now. I probably starts some time after the success of Iron Man.


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