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Idiot's Guide Gets Serious: Event Burnout

Written by Christian Hoffer on Thursday, September 16 2010 and posted in Columns

Idiot's Guide gets serious and examines the era of the event comic, what it's doing to storytelling in comic books, and what needs to be done about it.

This is a special edition of Idiot's Guide to Superheroes.  Usually, Idiot's Guide takes a lighthearted look at everything good about superheroes, their histories and what makes them unique.  However, today, I'm taking a more serious look at a nagging problem with comics that lie just underneath the surface, waiting for an exploding oil rig to erupt countless gallons of destruction on today's comic book landscape.  Today, Idiot's Guide takes a look at event comics.

Event comics are both the boon and bane of the comic book industry. They're a boon in that they feature the biggest stories, the biggest writers, the biggest artists and the biggest characters all wrapped up into one (supposedly) easy to follow event. They're the blockbusters of the comic book universe, the closest thing that the comic industry has to a midnight premiere event. However, if we compare these events to summer blockbusters, most of them end up being more like that awful Godzilla movie with grown up Ferris Bueller as opposed to something a little more tolerable, like the Dark Knight or Independence Day.

The current era of the event comic really began with Infinite Crisis, the first of DC's major events. Infinite Crisis began with a one-shot called Countdown to Infinite Crisis, which featured the death of the posthumously beloved Blue Beetle II and the revelation that a storm was brewing in the DC universe. Spinning directly out of that one story were four miniseries that focused on different aspects of the DC universe. Those four miniseries led directly to Infinite Crisis, which revealed that none of the four miniseries really mattered at all as a set of new villains emerged threatening the DC universe with infinite destruction.

Marvel, who had been toying with its own event blueprint with the Avengers Dissembled story arc that ran through the Avengers series as well as the series of any character that was a member of the team, quickly upped the ante with House of M, which featured an eight issue series focusing on a recreated Marvel universe in which Magneto ruled supreme and a multitude of miniseries focusing on every aspect of the Marvel universe. That miniseries led to universe-altering consequences that are still being played out today.

Since then, DC and Marvel have traded blows with events that they perceive as increasingly more epic. Some have been smaller like World War Hulk, while others have been grandiose, like the recent Blackest Night. Even smaller companies, such as Image and Top Cow, have even gotten in on the event action, with events such as Image United (which has released a whopping three issues in ten and a half months time) and Artifacts respectively. However, despite the plethora of event comics, very few have garnered any amount of praise from the comic book community. Some have been called bloated, others rushed, and others lacking any semblance of a plot. Recently, Editors in Chiefs of both Marvel and DC have referred to "Event burnout" in interviews, claiming that the major event comics as we knew it were drawing to a close. Then Marvel announced Shadowland and Chaos War and DC announced Brightest Day, the latest three in the seemingly endless series of event comics.

Event comics are wildly successful on the sales charts. All of the major DC and Marvel events have topped the monthly sales charts and have led to the belief that events are both wanted and profitable. In fact, the last five years or so can be described as a continuous cycle of buildup to an event comic, an event comic occuring and then the aftermath, with the whole cycle repeating about once every sixteen months or so.  So why are event comics nowadays met with groans across the internets? If event burnout is real then what can be about it?

There's a few reasons that can be blamed for the dislike of the endless barrage of event comics. One is that it's as inaccessible to new readers as they come. Almost all these events start in the middle of the story as opposed to the beginning. Blackest Night began with the War of Light already in play, Siege began in the middle of Norman Osborn's Dark Reign. In order to get full enjoyment for these events, readers have to already be invested in them.

Secondly, event comics are often guilty of being too big. DC has had two crises, one of infinite proportions and one of epic final proportions, and a full on universal zombie plague in the last five years alone. While some of these events weren't terrible, it's simply too much blockbuster for one universe. Considering that comic book time runs much slower than real time, this means that the Earth so ably defended by the Justice League of America has been enslaved by a God, forcibly split into an infinite amount of other earths, and gotten chewed on by Death and his zombie minions in the time that it takes to get an associate's degree in forestry.

On a related note, the death tolls of these events have been staggering. Marvel's Siege event featured the destruction of Soldier Field in Chicago, accounting for the death of approximately 61,000 individuals. Even if that death toll includes the vast majority of Chicago Bears fans (which would be a welcome riddance of dead weight from society), there's simply no way to believe that the end result would not be Norman Osborn's nationally televised execution. Instead, he's sitting in a cell, tormenting the Avengers Academy with his brillo-pad haircut.  DC's been event more carte blanche about the death toll in these events.  Every event seems to feature scene after scene of people like you and me getting vaporized, incinerated, eaten, or killed.  If I were a resident of DC's Earth, I'd probably sue the Justice League of America for negligence and steal Superman's rocket to take my chances in space.

Then, there's the tie-ins. Blackest Night had twenty-seven tie-ins. Siege had eighteen tie-ins. Chaos War, the upcoming finale event of the enjoyable Hercules saga (that spun out of the World War Hulk event), has eight tie-ins to the main series. Quite frankly, that's a lot of dough to spend on a lot of comics that quite often aren't very good. Most of these "tie-ins" don't really tie into the plot at all. The Adventure Comics tie-in to Blackest Night featured an undead Alexander Luthor, the evil doppelganger of Lex Luthor from Earth-3, attack Superboy-Prime, a Clark Kent from our world, who has been somehow involved in DC's last three events. Shenanigans ensue, including a visit to the actual DC office, where Prime accosts Dan Didio, the real-life editor at DC, to find out how his comic ends. At the finale of the issue, Superboy-Prime is comforted by his girlfriend, who is revealed to be a zombie in the final panel. This all takes place in "our" world as opposed to the DC universe and has no connection to the Blackest Night story other than the fact that some zombies run around in it. The worst part of it all was that this story was actually written by Geoff Johns, the writer of the main event, who actually chose to have his story in Adventure Comics have no effect on ANYTHING in the DC universe, save for the removal of an overused villain from DC's toy box temporarily.

Now, I'm not going to totally throw tie-in stories under the bus. They haven't been all terrible. Legion of Three Worlds was a pretty good Legion story (also featuring Superboy-Prime, FYI), and Captain Britain and MI13, a fantastic albeit short-lived series, started off directly tying into the Marvel event Secret Invasion. Tie-ins can be a fantastic way to expand the universe and touch upon everyone's favorite characters and show how they're affected by whatever shitstorm is going on in that universe. Unfortunately, for every good tie-in there are three that are mediocre at best.

Finally, at the end of the event, there's never any true resolution. Every single event has some sort of hanging plot point that serves to lead into the next event or spinoff title. House of M led to the depowering of the mutants and the revelation that Wolverine remembered everything. That led to three spinoff titles, one in which a bunch of ex-mutants pouted about the fact they didn't have powers anymore, one where a bunch of mutants pouted about the fact that they still had powers, and one where Wolverine realized that his past wasn't all that interesting. Final Crisis ended with the revelation that Batman, who had been killed exactly one issue earlier, was in fact still alive and stuck in a prehistoric cave. None of these stories have real true resolution; they simply try to entrap readers in a myriad of tie-ins, spinoffs, and evitably the next big event. While an epilogue is always a good way to follow up on the story or lead to the sequel, five epilogues is weak storytelling that leaves readers frustrated by the lack of ending.

In addition to the lack of resolution, DC and Marvel have been increasingly quick to reverse reprecussions from their events.  Steve Rogers, killed at the conclusion of Captain America, was back to lead Marvel's heroes only two events later.  Jade, a B-List hero killed during Infinite Crisis, was brought back two event laters so the current Justice League of Wannabes (patent pending) could have a Green Lantern analogy.  In fact, the only reprecussion that seems to be sticking in either universe is the lack of mutants in the Marvel Universe and the death of Blue Beetle, who was replaced by a Mexican-American teenager that has his own television show in development.  When the events that occur within these events are reversed, the stories themselves become superfluous, which is probably the leading cause of "event burnout". 

So at the end of the day, DC and Marvel are dependent on a type of story that has no clear beginning, no clear middle, and no clear end.  Throw in countless deaths for shock value, deaths and resurrections that get reversed in two to three years times, and the gradual feeling that none of these events matter, and you have a perfect recipe for discontent in the ranks and file of the three hundred thousand or so people who form the monthly readership for today's comics.   

I wish I had a clear solution to event burnout. It seems as if both major comic book companies are becoming increasingly reliant on event comics to move issues off the shelf despite the fact that they don't draw in new readers. While the event comic caused some stirring five years ago (I'll even admit to being drawn to DC for the first time when Infinite Crisis first came out), it's no longer enough to bring in the new readers necessary to the survival of our industry for the generations to come. While I'm not one of the people believing that the industry is going to implode in the next few years, I think that a continued reliance on the event comics to push sales will certainly speed up the process.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that we need to see a temporary respite from event comics. Let's bench the concept until the powers that be can actually come up with something that's worthy of being called an event. In the meantime, the big two can find a new schtick to increase sales. With both Marvel and DC owned by major entertainment conglomerates, I'm sure that a new marketing approach and new reader-friendly storylines would be a good start. Hell, I'd even venture a little bit of television advertisement would go a long way. Having the characters of Big Bang Theory, one of the hottest shows on television, gush about the latest (and shockingly accessible) storyline in Green Lantern or X-Men would do a lot more for the health of the industry than fifteen tie-ins to Galactus Shits on the Moon.

Sorry for the ramble, ladies and gentlemen. I guess this is just something that I needed to get off my chest.

Written or Contributed by: Christian Hoffer

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About the Author - Christian

Christian is the exasperated Abbott to the Outhouse's Costello. When he's not yelling at the Newsroom for upsetting readers or complaining to his wife about why the Internet is stupid, he sits in his dingy business office trying to find new ways to make the site earn money. Christian is also the only person in history stupid enough to moderate two comic book forums at once.


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