Friday, April 4, 2008

REVIEW :: Secret Invasion #1

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?

Graphic novels.


Rusty Baily said...

WOW! Not sure if this was a review or a state of the union address on comics...but it was good! And summed up my feelings pretty well(I think!)
But YES! I WAS BLOWN AWAY BY SI #1!!! The possibilities that can come from what happened here is, for the first time in MANY events, EXCITING! BENDIS IS APPARENTLY A GENIUS! It's either going to be a unbelievably great story, or it will be utterly pathetic! It's almost as if they've had to do all of this as an "easy out" for the cluster they've made out of the Marvel Universe, but if it works...Fantastic! I just hope the first issue isn't the BEST issue. Hopefully it'll just get better from here!!!
And Yu's art has never been better(except for maybe "Highroads"...if you haven't seen this, check it out!)
Now, how's about cuttin me a deal on that 1:50 Yu variant?!?!?!?!?

Cooper said...

I would think that the Powers at Be at Marvel might have been a little concerned with having to know a lot of continuity...Hence that...Whatever it's called...Invasion Sga, or Infiltration saga...That freebie that came out a few weeks ago. It might have been the coolest and most in-depth freebie ever.
Oh...And I loved it, too. Anything I'd gush about is too skrullaspoilerific, though, so I'll just shut up and gush to myself.

Big Dog said...

Well said Dusty. Some of the many reasons I'm staying away from this and 90% of the other big event books out there.
The biggest reason is that the majority of the events that transpire within these pages will no doubt be rendered null and void by the next big event.
I guess that's why my interests have broadened to include books such as the Walking Dead, Fell, Bone, the Spirit and Criminal.
But I am a fanboy at heart and if this turns out to be an entertaining read I may pick it up in the inevitable trade paperback.

Justnathan said...

Haven't looked lately, but I wonder how much Marvel makes from their entire comics line vs. just one of the movies they produce. When it comes to the bottom line they may be willing to cater the majority of their books to the existing fans and only offer a few ins to new folks (that said, their Marvel Adventures books are at least consistently pretty good so young readers have something to go to that's not mired in continuity.)

As far as Iron Man goes, I seem to remember a number of minis coming out around the time of the movie. I'm not sure I could recommend the current Iron Man to a new reader who liked the movie; you'd get to explain Civil War, what Extremis is, etc.

Dustin Harbin said...

Rusty: Excellent use of the !.

Cooper: I hear you on the attempt by Marvel to wrap everything up in a prelude special, but I still think it's a problem of this event mindset. The idea that a new reader would come into the store and read a sumup of the last five years or so of continuity BEFORE THEY EVEN BEGIN the actual story is hard to swallow. I think books like that are targeted at people who are already comics readers, but maybe don't read the necessary titles to "get it".

It strikes me as an attempt to throw a band-aid on the problem of having your giant summer blockbuster be so continuity-driven that a new reader can't hop right in. I always thought the point of the giant summer blockbuster was to get as many hind-ends in seats as possible.

Bigdog: I like your style.

Justnathan: Dirk Deppey over at Journalista ( regular covers Marvel's quarterly reports, conference calls, investor meetings, and all that corporate stuff. It sounds like the actual publishing of Marvel's books represents a single digit percentage of the companies total revenue, most of which comes from licensing (movies, toys, etc.).

Which, not to make it sound nefarious or anything, makes a lot of these decisions sound pretty robotic, indicating as it does that the actual stories Marvel publishes are little more than license farms. But Marvel is a business, just like we are. We love comic books, but if we didn't make at least a tiny amount of money (exactly how much we make) from selling them, it's not like we'd go homeless just so you could get them. Nor were the creations of any of the great comic book licenses--I mean, characters--some altruistic act. All those people wanted to get paid.

Douglas Merkle said...

Dusty- yo uthat i blinding agree with 95% of what you say, but there is one particular (albiet minor) line in your rant that bothers me a bit..who is Jessica Jones. In a column where you seem to be questioning the paradigm of super hero comic publishers, I find it odd that you would sort of throw Jessica Jones as one of the reasons for super hero comics being inaccessable. I would present the character as one of the things doen right as she is an actual new character, one that successfuly lauched her own series (Alias for those who haven't had the pleasure)and has actually stuck around for several years.

Dustin Harbin said...

Right, Doug--but she's also a character who was retrofitted into existing continuity. For instance, when you see all the 70's characters (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) pop out of the spaceship, and one of them is her, it's a little like wha? It's not a problem, it's just that she's almost a meta-character, and simply by existing in certain scenes or stories constantly points out how tangled continuity is.

Let me point out quickly that I did enjoy the story, and often enjoy these events. Heck, if Civil War had had a real ending instead of a "what happens next? Read every Marvel comic for three months to find out!" I even liked House of M--but I've been reading comics since the early 80's, and have worked here since 96, so I'm hardly a new reader. Even reading as few superhero books as I do now, I can still sort of piece together what I don't know, because it's all in that comic book vernacular.

I'm just saying that the problem may be that comic book vernacular--in an age of increasing prominence for comics in book form, where does this tangled periodical world of monthly cliffhangers go?

This reminds me a lot of a panel at last year's HeroesCon, where Dan Didio defended the lack of letters columns in the back of DC Comics. He pointed out (correctly, I think) that in this age of blogging and comments and e-mail and text messaging, the idea of putting a letter in a comic book that will see print three months later is hopelessly archaic, and only shows the huge gap between the print world and the data world.


No one asked about how that might correlate with monthly comics' place in publishing, but I think it was because someone changed the subject to Hourman, or somebody's costume, or something.

Matthew Bradley said...

Loved Secret Invasion. Can't for more.

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?

Marvel came out with Secret Invasion Saga which came out in print and, later, digitally for free. They've also made some skrull-related comics available for free online, for a limited time, on their website.

Dustin Harbin said...

Hm, yes. Convoluted plotlines are easy to follow if they give you a scoresheet. And needing a couple dozen of pages of exposition before a giant summer event is a good thing. New readers are boring.

Although it's easy to take potshots at the whole periodical/monthly/cliffhanger-based publishing model, especially since nowhere else does serialized literature work particularly well. Oh, except television. I'd be interested to know if Lost's ratings have gone up this season, when the story has gotten so incredibly far from the plane-crash-on-weird-island origin that they do a recap episode before every new episode. It's hard for me to suggest to anyone anymore that they try Lost if they haven't yet, because of the incredible amount of work it would take. Isn't it easier to jump into Heroes or whatever the next sci-fi show will be?