Speaking as someone who reads comics AND has worked for the same comic book store (with occasional interruptions) since the mid-90's, it's tough to get excited about the Next Big Events from the big superhero publishers. It's not so much that I think they won't be good, but if there's a different big event going on each month, is it really an "Event" anymore? And regardless of the quality of the "event", this sort of event-driven publishing creates an environment where books are marketed based on their relevance to the current event; rather than their relative qualities as books, as comics, as stories. Which reminds me, speaking again from the standpoint who started working here at the end of the Great Comics Bust of the 90's, of another time notable for the prevalence of events.
Witness Secret Invasion #1: Brian Bendis is almost preternaturally suited to write comic books. His brain is an apparently bottomless well of story ideas and dialogue, and he seems uncommonly adept at managing these big universe-spanning stories, where he has to juggle not only what dozens and dozens of characters are doing now, but often what they've ever done. I'm not sure I've ever read a Bendis-written comic and just plain hated it--if nothing else, they're almost always entertaining on some level. Which is what makes him so well-suited as a superhero comics writer: Brian Bendis is good at entertaining.
Which is what Secret Invasion #1 is: entertaining. There's a big buildup, including at some point nearly every marquee character in the Marvel Universe, leading to numerous revelations of various Skrull doppelgangers doing nefarious things, culminating in a bunch of explosions, building crumplings, and one very retro deplaning. It was fun to read; I enjoyed reading it. Was it good? That's harder to say.
The problem with Secret Invasion #1, and with a lot of these event-driven comics, is that you need to have a knowledge of the Marvel Universe almost as extensive as Bendis' own to follow things. There's no entry point for a new reader; there's virtually no reference point for them to enter the story. I've been reading New Avengers off and on, so I at least know that there's been some are-you-a-Skrull paranoia for a while now. As in, for the last 30 or so issues of New Avengers. But what if I hadn't read all those? What if I didn't know that in another big event (Civil War), half of the Marvel Universe ended up hating the other half, and that Tony Stark is a big fat jerk? Thus splitting up Avenger Luke Cage from Jessica Jones. Wait-what? Luke Cage is an Avenger? Jessica Jones is--wait, who's Jessica Jones?
At least with Civil War, the main impetus for the conflict takes place within the story, so you can follow things with a more basic knowledge of what--for anyone who doesn't read comics--is an incredibly labyrinthine system of characters and histories. I read the main Civil War series and NONE of the lead-ins or related books, and was able to make pretty fair sense of things. World War Hulk had a similarly self-contained core title, although it depended heavily on the events of the preceding Planet Hulk storyline. Secret Invasion, however, presumes the reader has been reading Marvel Comics, especially Avengers-related titles, for the last several years. Regardless of its several qualities as a story, it's this snub of the new readers that is so troubling to me.
Even considering Brian Bendis' greater-than-normal creative control over comics he writes, these events are obviously the product of writing-by-committee. Not that this has to be bad writing, but in many cases it's a matter of putting the cart before the horse. Rather than saying, "I've got a great idea, a really primo story," it's "let's plan some big summer crossovers." Or even worse: "How am I going to fit my own story into this company-mandated framework?" Inevitably storytelling will suffer--not everyone is as talented as Brian Bendis. Most people aren't particularly good at telling stories they came up with themselves, much less someone else's.
On the other hand, they sure do sell--Civil War sold an absolutely silly number of copies for us. But so did the "Death of Superman" storyline, way back when. Ditto for Superman #123, the now forgotten "Superman Goes Electric" issue. At some point people just plain lose interest; there's too much to keep up with, they can't understand characters that they've been reading for years and years, and they just decide to put their disposable incomes elsewhere. And worse, there's no entry point for new readers. If someone walks in the store and wants to try Marvel's biggest book, they're going to need about ten minutes of "previously in..." explanation first. My prediction: they're back out the door at minute three.
This might just be snobbery on my part, as someone who only reads the superhero stuff intermittently. But it seems very much that the event-driven publishing model is dependent on having a captive readership who buy comics on a weekly or semi-weekly basis. But what about all those OTHER people outside of the comics shop? With two big Marvel movies coming out this summer, Marvel has mystifyingly changed the name of The Incredible Hulk (also the title of the Hulk movie) to Incredible Herc, and put the focus on a Greek godling. Regardless of the quality of The Incredible Herc (I hear it's great), is this not confusing timing? Similarly, they're commemorating the release next month of the Iron Man movie with a brand new title called "Invincible Iron Man", and have changed the existing "Iron Man" title (also the name of the movie) to "Iron Man, Director of Shield."
I'm sure the new Iron Man series will be predictably great, as Matt Fraction is writing it. But for all the talk of getting things to where they're enjoyable for everybody (like "Brand New Day", natch), they seem to be at odds with the world that exists outside of the comic shop. Because for all the great sales of things like Civil War, and--most likely--Secret Invasion, they're not increasing numbers. We're not seeing people trooping into the store to buy these books--it's always existing customers. Don't get me wrong, we love existing customers. Love 'em! Depend on them. But when new customers come into the store, like as not they're not going to dive into the latest maze-of-continuity event. They'll probably buy either a) anything by Joss Whedon, b) Bone, or c) some graphic novel. If it's a new customer that used to read comics years ago, they'll probably buy something related to the X-Men some way. Which, statistically, will probably be Astonishing X-Men, which goes back to "a".
If mainstream publishers want to keep the gossamer-thin hold they have on the imaginations of comics fans, in a world packed to the gills with video games, movies, and the Internet, they have to begin shifting their paradigm toward more long-term thinking. For instance: how will this story sell in collected form? By "ret-con"ing things all the time, are we destroying future sales for a segment of our backlist? Are we alienating a segment of our readership? And most important of all, most most most important: how are we working to bring in new readers? And not just new 20- to 40-somethings, but kids who will grow up reading comics and continue into THEIR adulthoods. Shelton Drum (Heroes' owner, if you didn't know) started buying comics in the mid-60's, and eventually turned his greedy eyes toward selling them himself. Are there any young Shelton Drum's browsing the racks today? And if by chance they are, what will they think of the kind of story Secret Invasion represents?
Oh, yeah--I forgot to review the actual comic. It's good, I liked it. Leinil Yu can really draw cool looking people, especially when he has an inker. A what? I know, they're rare now. The whole parade of 70's versions of everyone is a little hokey, but it appealed to the kid in me. Well, maybe not the tiara-wearing Luke Cage, but it's a fun idea.
Which is what Bendis is good at: fun ideas. But fun for whom? I think Marvel--and DC, too (52? Countdown? Hello?)--have forgotten that satisfying comics fans is only half of a healthy market. Getting new readers is the only way to grow an industry which faces threats from all sides, and not just from video games and the Internet. A big threat to the superhero mythos' place in comics?