30 July 2011

Future Tense

For several years now, many superhero comics fans have been mentally vibrating among three periods. That’s bound to cause difficulties—not life-threatening, but certainly anxiety-forming.

The first period in which fans live is when each of us was twelve or fourteen, or whenever we dove deep into the superhero genre. Even though we often recognize some new, individual stories as better, comics as a whole never feel so exciting again as in that initial exploration. And of course we’re never going to be that young again, either. The result can range from a thinly rueful nostalgia to an undercurrent of rage, depending on personality, but some sense of disappointment is almost inescapable.

The second period is the present, and the storylines we’re following. Ideally, readers should be immersed in those stories, the heroes’ immediate situations and near-future possibilities.

The third period is the heroes’ future a little further out, as hinted at but never fully revealed in the descriptions and covers for upcoming issues. The big publishers, starting with DC and Marvel, put out those previews to promote orders from comic-book shops. The internet has made it impossible to keep fans from finding them, too, and in fact the industry has evolved so that those previews are designed to prompt fans to order magazines that intrigue them.

Previews’ story summaries are always written in hyperbolic prose. The covers are sometimes masked to maintain narrative surprises. Closer to publication, the publishers release sample pages, and often the creators share work in progress on their own websites. All of which takes attention from the current storylines.

Previews are designed to raise expectations, but they’ve inevitably produced a plethora of new disappointments: that a highly anticipated magazine gets delayed (e.g., All Star Batman and Robin, Batwoman), or that a magazine published on time came from a different artist or writer than the preview described. Of course, if fans paid little attention to previews, they wouldn’t feel disappointed by the fact that plans can change in a deadline-driven industry. (We can still feel disappointed by bad stories, of course.)

Currently, DC Comics is promoting a new continuity, to debut this fall. Which means that few fans appear to be paying attention to or deriving enjoyment from the stories the company’s writers and artists are telling right now. Instead, most of us are scrounging for information and speculating broadly about the status of favorite characters in the new universe. DC has released information in small amounts. As details have become clear, the loudest response has been, unsurprisingly, disappointment.

Fans of Stephanie Brown as the current Batgirl are so busy lamenting her displacement from that role and her low profile in the new continuity that I’ve seen very little discussion of her current storyline. Batgirl’s a fun magazine—or it was while fans could still focus on it.

After a couple of years of complaining about horrible things happening to Roy Harper (Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow/Arsenal), that character’s fans are now focused on how the new universe’s Roy Harper will be too young for any of those horrible things to have happened to him. (I’m not sure what character will be left.)

Fans of the original Titans also noted that DC set aside no space for Wally West (Kid Flash/Flash) and Donna Troy (Wonder Girl/Troia/…just leave it at Donna Troy). DC has also said little about Gar Logan (Beast Boy/Changeling/Beast Boy), but, alas for him, far fewer people seem to care. When artist Brett Booth joked about drawing Wally and Donna and then had to point out the joke, Titans Tower chided, “Fans are just asking for simple answers, not sure why that’s so hard to comply.”

In response to such comments, Booth wrote on his blog:
I think you new fans are getting far, far to[o] spoiled! I remember when I had to wait and see if the local drug store actually ordered my favorite comics. No internet, no wizard [magazine], no comic store by me. Why would you want to know everything before the books even come out? It's like being told what your Christmas presents are before you get them!
I have to agree with that attitude. The superhero genre has long relied on storytelling surprises: characters popping up unexpectedly, heroes having had a plan all along, people not being who or what they seem. In these slow-paced days, the companies keep upcoming plotlines secret for years—which also gives them the power to reverse course.

If superhero storytellers actually explained what was going to happen, the stories wouldn’t be as exciting. If they reassured fans about all their favorite characters, the adventures would have less of an edge. If the companies locked themselves in for years to come, then the stories would soon get stale. Either way, fans would eventually be disappointed.

Of course, we usually are anyway.

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