24 September 2012

Are War Comic Books a Dying Art?

Editor's note: This is Part I of the Red Bull Rising mini-series "Comic Book Re: Insurgency." See also Part IIPart III, Part IV,  and Part V.

My name is Sherpa ... ("Hi, Sherpa!") ... and I read comic books.

It has been approximately three days since I purchased my last comic book. Before that, I was on the wagon for a couple of decades, ever since I packed away my childish things in my parents' basement and drove off to school. Sure, maybe I purchased the occasional trade paperback reprints collecting a particular title into a single bound edition. And, when passing through the Post Exchange, I'd pick up the free Marvel-brand issues that celebrated Life, Liberty, and the AAFES Way. Just to keep a finger on the pulse of the old stories, to check in with some of the the old superhero gang.

From my aging position, it seemed like comic books were becoming less relevant to society, while also becoming more expensive and bloody. When I started actively collecting comics in the 1970s and '80s, DC and Marvel titles cost 40- or 50-cents. The specials cost maybe a dollar. Today, comics are printed with glorious inks on bright white papers—the newsprint of my youth is long gone—but they cost $2.99, $3.99, or more. That's for maybe 40 pages of visual content, with one-quarter of that being advertising and editorial filler.

There's a quip I've long-ago borrowed from a now-forgotten comedian: "I remember when comic books not only cost a dime, and they were also thicker than one."

I couldn't keep track of my own hobby: There were too many crossovers, too many titles, too many alter egos and altered realities. I resigned myself from comic book collecting when I finally figured out that it was an activity akin to watching soap operas or professional wrestling. The good guys might win, but only for a minute. The bad guys would turn good, the good guys would turn bad. Someone would occasionally die, only to be respawned or resurrected when the economic timing was right. "All this has happened before, all this will happen again."

In recent years, comics have moved from the newsstand to the movie theater, which is itself a market under siege. Despite the vagaries of making money in the movie business, there have been a few bright victories in the battle to capture eyeballs and dollars. For example, "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) was a spare and unsparing reflection on our collective post-September 11th mindset. And Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012) was a megaton-of-popcorn blockbuster, chockfull of themes of service and sacrifice.

Because superheroes are our modern-day mythologies, it makes sense that every generation might desire its own take on the basic narratives. Does every half-generation need its own version of Spider-man or Superman, however? Are we really better off with "The Amazing Spiderman" (2012) than we were just five years ago with "Spider-man 3" (2007)? At what point does it all just become a matter of churning and burning, rehashing and mashing-up?

All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.

I have a few combat-themed comics in my old stacks, but not many. I was mostly into DC and Marvel superheroes. Even in this, however, I was a bit of a contrarian collector. For example, I bought "Moon Knight" rather than the more multiple and popular titles involving Batman himself. (Think "Dark Knight with a bunch of Egyptian mythos mixed in.") I collected "Dazzler" comics, the story of a disco-era roller-skating mutant musician who was capable of converting sound waves into light.

Needless to say, I purchased the latter series with an increasing sense of irony. No one else would be crazy enough to buy these, I thought.

I made my first 21st century comic-book purchases in a similar spirit, with a similar strategy in mind. In 2011, DC Comics announced a complete story- and product-line reshuffle, which resulted in revising and culling that company's universe of characters down to 52 titles. Most of these "New 52" were superhero titles, but two were war titles: "Men at War" and "Blackhawks." The first was to be an modern-day update to the "Sgt. Rock" series of yesteryear, which had originally been set in World War II. The second was a similar update, regarding a band of flying mercenaries.

They were each cancelled after less than a year.

(The first six of eight issues of "Men at War" is available as a trade paperback collection titled "Men of War Vol. 1: Uneasy Company".)

As part of a "Second Wave" to its New 52 campaign, DC Comics then resurrected the "G.I. Combat" title, which included characters and stories such as "The Unknown Solider" and "The Haunted Tank." The latter originally involved the WWII adventures of an M3 "Stuart" tank crew, whose vehicle was inhabited by the spirit of Confederate States Army cavalry Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Earlier this month, however, DC Comics reportedly announced that the "Men at War" successor "G.I. Combat" would also be cancelled after the December 2012 issue, its seventh. "Basically," wagged one website, "the same comic has been cancelled twice."

Collect them all, trade with your friends. And stack them next to Dazzler.

After more than 10 years of global conflict in the real world—and two apparent war-comic Donnybrooks—you might come to the conclusion that readers just aren't interested in buying more war.

In that, however, you would be wrong.

Later this week: Stories of writers and artists who are successfully telling war stories through their own super projects. Stay tuned, True Believers!

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