Recently I found myself pondering the current situation with the X-Men Johnathan Hickman relaunch.
The X-Men have been a branch of the comics universe that I have always enjoyed, but for far, far too long–since the late 2000’s–I have found them to be impenetrable. The creative teams change too often, and there are too many books. There are other reasons (Marvel burying their mutant books in favor one ones they can market for MCU characters, boring storylines like Messiah Complex and Avengers vs X-Men), but those are the big hitters.
It reminded me that in my childhood, there seemed like there were fewer X-Books. Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor, mostly, with Excalibur and New Mutants/X-Force existing on a periphery, telling their own stories. Even the debut of X-Men didn’t make anything too crazy.
Now, I know… I’m not breaking new ground here. The idea that there are too many comics on the market is something that has been postulated a lot, but bear with me… this might not be going exactly where you think.
What I thought of next is that, sure… there are a ton of Marvel and DC properties on the market, but doesn’t it kind of HAVE to be that way? There are so many characters and so many stories to tell! But are they publishing the right books to do it? Let’s look at that, first.
Between ongoing and limited series currently in publication as of this writing, DC has a total of 67 books being published. Of those, FIFTEEN directly star Batman and/or Superman. And that doesn’t include adjacent titles like Lois Lane or Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen or Gotham City Monsters.
DC, YOU HAVE OTHER CHARACTERS.
And that’s the point: I don’t typically mind either of The Big 2 publishing a ton of books since they have so many great characters. But when over 22% of your SIXTY-SEVEN titles are dedicated to two characters… you are doing it wrong!
Marvel has at least seven different books starring or co-starring Peter Parker at the moment, out of their lineup of 56 books. Still too many! There are only three books I see that have Wolverine currently (though he has a new ongoing set to start soon). So that’s… improvement? Ten out of fifty-six? Is that what the market needs?
What I’m proposing here is not that Superman or Batman or Spider-Man or Wolverine are bad characters (indeed, all but Batman are in my fifteen favorite characters ever), but that… as a reader–ANY reader, much less a new reader, heaven forbid–what book to buy?!
Let’s keep picking on DC since their percentage is even more askew than Marvel’s. Let’s say you have $15 for comics, and you want to buy a few Superman or Batman books. What do you grab? Action Comics? Detective Comics? Superman? Batman? Justice League? Literally a book called Batman/Superman, for God’s sake, because positively nothing could be more on the nose about DC Comics than the fact that they have ongoing books called Batman, Superman, and Batman/Superman ? Batman & The Outsiders? Superman: Up In The Sky? Superman: Year One? Batman vs Ra’s Al Ghul? I’M LITERALLY GETTING BORED OF NAMING AND ITALICIZING THESE. That’s not all; I could keep going!
How do you even begin to penetrate this list of different (“DiFfErEnT”) titles? I read comics every month, and I can’t even imagine! What “matters”? What doesn’t?
Meanwhile, say you want to read about Tim Drake, a very popular and influential DC character who has been around since the very early 1990’s and has a rich history and fanbase? What all books would you buy then?
Well, you would start with Young Justice, a team book in which he makes up 14% of the protagonists, and then… you would stop. Because that’s it.
What if you’d like to follow the adventures of any of the central members of the Green Lantern Corps? You know, there’s Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner, John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and others! Well, you’ve got… one book called The Green Lantern, which is almost certainly about Hal. The others? Maybe they are in a team book somewhere. If you are lucky. Probably they are nowhere, and you are the opposite of lucky.
And that’s why the issue of there being so many books on the market is hard to decipher. Marvel and DC each have an enormous pantheon of characters, both great and lame. And if you subscribe to the belief that EVERY character is SOMEONE’S favorite character, they could all stand a little bit of spotlight. They don’t even all need their own title; just make new teams!
I, personally, will read an entire team book if one character I love is included! I’m doing it now with Marauders and Excalibur. So go ahead and publish seventy books a month because with decades upon decades of history to pull from, there are so many fantastic characters to showcase.
But they don’t get showcased. Because twenty percent of books on the shelf needs to star one of four different characters across two companies!
And I get it. Comic books cost $4 or $5 per issue in a struggling (read: dying) market. So Marvel and DC don’t want to push out ongoing series for Etrigan or Darkhawk or Creeper or Beta Ray Bill that aren’t going to sell and are just going to cost them money they can’t afford to waste. Batman and Spider-Man are what move the dial, so they get many titles.
So we’re back at the initial point: are there too many comics being published… or too few? And we still don’t have an answer besides “well, both? sorta?”
I’m surprised that with Marvel having Marvel Unlimited and DC having DCUniverse that neither publisher has said “You know what? Let’s take our heads out of the sand. Comic books ARE dying. But maybe our storytelling and characters AREN’T! Let’s drastically reduce the books we actually physically publish and put for sale on shelves. Then we can create a new subscription-only model where we can release many more titles without creating physical copies!”
The thing is, comic books are not a mainstream thing. They are a borderline archaic format with a ludicrous price point. Conversely, comic book PROPERTIES and streaming services are very popular and accepted in the modern eye. How hard would it be to cut the effort and energy of physically publishing 60 books and putting it into digitally publishing 100 books? Subscribe to the NEW DC Unlimited! You get access to all twenty of our monthly Superman and Batman “safety” titles on shelves, as well as up to 80 books only available on our service! Donna Troy has her own book now because why shouldn’t she?!
I don’t know. I continue to worry that within fifteen years, mainstream comic books will no longer be a thing. And I am just hoping that when this is the case, it’s because they have evolved to fit modern media and not because they just got dinosaured out.
But hey. For right now, Jubilee is in a book! So I’ll keep buying that book. Until they replace her with another Spider-Man title.