Monday, April 23, 2012

For Love or Money?: Thoughts on Before Watchmen

First, some news:
  • Cartoonist Stephen Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) has been chosen to create a new Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, continuing the adventures of the boy and his tiger.
  • Musicians Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have decided to make a new Beatles album, replacing John and George with Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne.
  • Universal has announced a prequel to Schindler's List, to be directed by Clint Eastwood.
Okay, breathe.  None of these are actually happening.

Your reaction to these news bits might have been roughly equivalent to the news that, after 26 years, DC are going to publish new stories about the characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic Watchmen. The new comics will arrive as a series of mini-series under the banner Before Watchmen.

As in my fake news examples, high quality talent is involved, but somehow that doesn't ease the blow of an acknowledged, put-to-rest classic getting an addendum, does it?

Watchmen is a landmark in comic book storytelling. Historically, it showed that you could tell a big, serious story about people in tights. It set a new standard in comics for complexity in pacing, structure, and ambition. It was unique in that it told a finite story. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end (of course, it alluded and flashed back to the characters' histories when it was germane to the larger story). Today, it's one of the rare (if not the only) superhero books you can give to a non comic book reader and still have a reasonable chance that they'll not hate it.

Now let's get this out of the way: The existence of a prequel or sequel to a film / movie / comic does not diminish the original work, especially if you choose to ignore that prequel or sequel. Even if you don't manage to avoid the new work, the human brain is savvy and self-protective enough to erase most bad associations.

So we could conclude that if the idea of Before Watchmen offends you there's a simple solution: Ignore it. But that elegant approach is rarely sufficient, especially when it comes to comic controversies. You've got to be able to justify yourself, lest you be labeled as a fun-hating wet blanket.

The reaction to this has been far-ranging, from pure fanboy excitement to impure fanboy rage. Some feel that the artistic talent on the project (Darwyn Cooke, J.G. Jones, Adam Hughes, Joe Kubert, to name a few) is too good to pass up. Others have honestly been clamoring for more from these characters. Some are morally outraged that this goes against Alan Moore's wishes (Dave Gibbons gave a terse, unenthusiastic statement of approval). Others feel it turns Watchmen into a superhero franchise, which belies the whole point of the original work. And there are those who believe strongly that the original 12 issues told you everything you need to know about that universe, and that doing prequels is just mindless, lowest-common-denominator extrapolation.

These are all points that could be and have been argued. Neither blind optimism nor righteous anger seems to be the best reaction though, especially since no one reacting has, you know, actually read the books yet.

Here's what I think: Before Watchmen is a monetarily-blessed, creatively-doomed proposition.

With Watchmen, DC have been sitting on a goldmine, and it's frankly surprising they waited this long to cash in. Despite anything anyone at DC corporate says, this is all about money. It's not about "bold creative moves" as co-publisher Jim Lee recently remarked. It's about making dough, something that DC is full well in its rights to do. In fact, as a company owned by Time Warner, that's what its in existence to do.


And indeed, even among all the arguments, the one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that DC are going to make a lot of money off of Before Watchmen (this might lead one to conclude that - since the comic-buying community is small - that a good portion of the complainers are going to buy the books out of some self-hating compulsion, but I digress).

There's also no one who believes that the prequels will surpass, or even equal, the quality of the original Watchmen. This places the project on creatively shaky ground. It immediately casts the writers and artists in doing-it-purely-for-the-money roles. Now I doubt that most (if any) of these writers and artists are consciously coming from that place, but that's where logic leads. If you are working on something you know can't be as creatively original or challenging as the original, and something for which the best possible reaction is "It was good enough", why are you doing it?

Comic fans want to believe that the industry they love is created and perpetuated out of a magnanimous zeal for creativity and art and storytelling and myth-making. And often we're able to convince ourselves of that, because so many comic creators are genuinely coming from that place even when their employers are not. Ideally, we'd like our art and commerce to be serendipitous partners, i.e. "I'm doing this out of pure creativity, and it's making a lot of money for my corporate overlords, too!" I believe Before Watchmen has stirred up such strong emotions because it's so egregiously not coming from that place. It's taken something that was the essence of creativity and turned it into a calculated, corporate-driven moneymaker, that, oh by the way, is not approved by its original creator.

The only one of the mini-series whose existence I could possibly justify is Darwyn Cooke's Minutemen. It helps that I adore Cooke's superhero work (especially DC: The New Frontier), but the kicker for me is that the only revisit to Watchmen story that Alan Moore ever considered (albeit in better times) was a series about the Minutemen.

But, ultimately, I'll probably wait until the hardcover comes out and I can buy it used, so no money goes directly to DC. The main reason that I can't bring myself to support DC's efforts is this: The only way to honor the spirit of Watchmen would have been with the creation of something new, innovative, and daring in the superhero realm. Before Watchmen is going to be a lot of things, but we know it won't be that. And by flaunting that so shamelessly, DC is not only saying something to us about how they feel about comics, but how they feel about us readers, as well. I refuse to be a part of that.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Living in the Bottle City

"Every generation thinks it's the last
Thinks it's the end of the world" 
- Wilco, "You Never Know"
 
*


I monitor the comics news sites (Comic Book Resources, Bleeding Cool, Newsarama, The Beat) pretty closely. I've been alarmed lately at how often and how quickly any conversation can turn to the death of the mainstream comics industry. There's a palpable feeling among many comics fans that the hobby they love is in the final stages of a long-suffered illness. Honestly, it's pretty easy to fall into this mindset. There are seemingly signs of doom everywhere. But I've decided that those signs are misleading. Here's why:

No doubt we're living in wildly transitional times. A small handful of years ago no one knew what a smart phone or a tablet or an e-reader or streaming or an MP3 was, and now they're all greatly affecting the way we purchase and consume our entertainment. The music, film, and television industries have all had their digital growing pains, but have come out the other side with a workable, profitable model. Even books, those long-assumed-antiquated artifacts, have stuck around, albeit on the Kindle and Nook and iPad rather than paper.

Though the writing about digital has been on the wall long enough for the spray paint to dry and even fade a little bit, the comics industry is just now starting to focus on offering their product electronically. Comics being a subsection of just regular old books, and books having made the transition mostly successfully, you'd think this would be a pretty smooth ride. DC have started offering all of their books digitally the same day as they're available in print. Marvel is putting "free" digital codes in all of their books, and trying to test the boundaries of the digital medium with the forthcoming Infinite Comics.

The thing is, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone sensible who thinks digital comics will help the industry rebound to the dizzy heights it once occupied, when DC sold millions of Superman comics to eager young lads and lasses. Unlike music, movies, television, and even novels, comic books are not simply a popular, proven entertainment option needing a new delivery method. Comic books are a niche hobby, and have been since at least the mid '90s.

Think about this: The best-selling comic book each month hits just over 100,000 sales, at best. Most hover somewhere around 50,000. A comic is typically in danger of being canceled if it sells less than 20,000. A network TV show, on the other hand, gets threatened with cancellation when it gets less than 7 million viewers. I know they're different mediums, but, really, the comic book industry can't go on pretending it exists in anything but its own hermetic Bottle City of Kandor.

Oh, sure, it's easy to get fooled, what with comics enjoying what has to be the highest amount of mainstream exposure they've ever had. The Walking Dead (based on an Image comic book) is a bonafide hit on AMC. This summer, everybody who didn't already know is going to know who the Avengers are. Anticipation for Christopher Nolan's final Batman film is crazy-high. There are currently Avengers, Spider-Man, Young Justice, and Green Lantern cartoons on the air. And you can walk into any Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, JC Penney, or Kohl's and buy any number of shirts, hoodies, pajamas, hats, or underwear featuring Marvel and DC properties.

But none of this means actually means that reading the comics themselves has gotten or will get more popular. It just means Hollywood studios and New York marketing firms have recognized their value as idea factories, as imaginative and / or nostalgic concepts to translate to other media. Reading comics will remain obscure, no matter how much we see the characters and concepts in the world around us.

The thing is, the comic industry's shrunken status is not the victim of an evil villain's plot. Mainstream comics did this to itself, both creatively and financially. They sealed themselves off and away, made their product more obscure and difficult to obtain, made their stories more impenetrable.

First, the direct market took over completely. Used to be you could find comics at grocery, convenience, and drug stores on those delightful spinner racks. While your mom shopped - which took forever - you could file through the latest offerings from Marvel and DC. Now, comics are found exclusively at comic book stores and (some) bookstores. I love comic book stores; I've spent many a pleasant hour in them. But they don't expand the hobby to new people.

And let's say that hadn't happened. Let's say comics were still available in places that kids and teenagers actually hang out. When I started collecting they were $1.00 each, so if I didn't have pocket money, I could talk my mom into at least 2 or 3 (actually my mom is awesome; she'd usually offer before I even asked). Now, a new comic is either $2.99 or $3.99. I think the first mom reaction would be "Wait that must be the Canadian price" and then she'd say "Only one" or "No". The line of thinking, I suppose, is that kids now "hang out" online, so that's where they'll find their comics. But first they have to have some impetus to seek them out, and then money becomes a sticking point again. Most publishers are keeping their digital prices in line with their print prices, and $2.99 or $3.99 is still too much for a kid to drop on a single comic.

In short, comics are way too expensive. And I won't even get into the "bang for your buck" factor of looking at completeness of story or page count or comparison to other media. Those are all just details. Comics are too expensive. You have to have a lot of disposable income and an existing desire to read these things to become a habitual reader. Trade paperback collections have made it cheaper and easier, but you have to be willing to wait.

Speaking of waiting, god forbid you want to take a shot at reading a comic you've heard good things about, only to find you've arrived at the store 5 hours too late to get a copy because the store didn't anticipate demand. Nothing builds an audience like your product not actually being available. At least digital can solve that problem, if a person is so inclined.

In terms of storytelling, I'll let retailer Brian Hibbs (who writes for Comic Book Resources) handle this one: "...the core-est of our 'core product' -- that is, specifically, the serialization of ongoing stories set in superhero universes of Marvel and DC -- really are a niche product. It isn't that new readers can't jump in to those worlds and product streams, but it seems to me that the very nature of the Soap Opera style of our dominant genre would mitigate against significant numbers of truly new readers 'jumping on' to serialization in the first place."

So, yeah, comics aren't written with new readers in mind (not even the DC's "New 52"; those stories still rely on a pretty deep familiarity with the characters and the way their fictional world operates). However, unlike my first point, I don't think this is something that should change. Comics and television are the only two medium that can provide years-long narratives to their audiences. It takes a certain kind of mindset to be willing to wade into the bracing waters of superhero backstory. You're going to be confused at first, and you're going to have to do a lot of research to catch up. Nearly every comic reader did it though, and is happy they did. 

That's not to say comics shouldn't expand their reach and ambition. We need self-contained stories like Bone, The Walking Dead, Watchmen, Persepolis, American Born Chinese, and Y the Last Man, and continuity-heavy non-superhero fare like The Unwritten and Fables. We need creators to keep pushing those boundaries of what comic storytelling is, and we need comics that appeal to people for whom superheroes are anathema.


*


By most accounts, recent sales of comics have been pretty good by comics standards. In no way as good as they were in the early '90s, or even the early '00s, but pretty good. Nothing is dying just yet. Sure, DC just threw the baby out with the bathwater with the "New 52", and Marvel is banking on a video game concept to be their big summer hit (Avengers vs. X-Men). Neither of these is especially appealing to me, so I can't really blame those who feel we've reached the end times. At the same time, I can't help but feel that when people are seeing "signs" of the industry dying, they're just suddenly noticing these glass walls we've had placed around us in our bottle city.

We're not dying here, but we do need someone to come along with an expander ray pre-programmed with the following settings: a) more available, b) more affordable, and c) more diverse (but still unique).
  
*

Thus ends the final in a three part trilogy in which I (somewhat negatively) document my changing attitudes toward the modern state of mainstream comic books. This is all for now, I promise. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How DC Comics Lost a Loyal Reader


In August 2011, the DC Comics universe started over. Iconic characters like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and Wonder Woman saw their titles go back to the beginning in both number and concept. Costumes were redesigned, origins tinkered with, history redefined.

In the history of the big two superhero publishers, there was only one precedent for what happened: John Byrne's The Man of Steel in 1986. This mini-series completely reset Superman's origin and status quo, blowing off many years of accumulated characters, complications, and contradictions in an attempt to streamline and modernize.

DC's "New 52" reset was The Man of Steel writ large, across an entire universe of characters. Many fans hailed it as a bold, necessary move to attract elusive new readers to comic books, a hobby that is seemingly becoming more and more antiquated by the day. Others, predictably, balked. What about the continuity you're throwing away? Why are the new costumes so horrible? Where does Character X fit in? This isn't my DC anymore.

Personally, I was excited by the news, with only some reservation. I'd been feeling restless with an increasingly insular brand of storytelling DC had been peddling, largely at the behest of a writer I once greatly admired, Geoff Johns. Stories like Blackest Night and the follow-up Brightest Day featured promising premises belied by head-scratching non-sequitur pay-offs. Both stories climaxed with the return of long-dead heroes (Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and many others in the former, Swamp Thing in the latter), and led directly into the next big thing. The final moments of these stories had no emotional payoff because there was no in-story reason to expect these characters to return, no foreshadowing or logic. Even reading as a long time fan of the DC universe of characters - the intended audience for this sort of "shocker" - I found myself left cold. The stories (and indeed the very idea of reading comics) seemed to be feeding on themselves. If for that reason only, I was happy to see something drastic happen.

Well, something drastic did happen, just not the drastic thing I expected. After giving the New 52 a good college try, I decided it was the final nail in my fandom of DC comics as it currently exists.

How did it happen? As follows I'll explain the troubling origins of the New 52, the implications of the reset, and what what should have been.

Part 1: Lack of Vision
I returned to reading comics full-time in 2006, after a 6 year hiatus. I immediately bought in fully to DC's line-wide approach. 2006's Infinite Crisis was a mess, though the resulting 52 made me feel like there was true coordination, planning, and direction in DC's universe. The publisher began releasing tantalizing teaser images that hinted at future storylines. They made it feel like if you bought in on mass scale, you'd be rewarded.

But that wasn't true, mostly because DC's editorial were good at teasing, but not delivering. They had no long-term vision, a fact they continually proved. Here are a few lowlights (out of many):
  • Countown to Final Crisis, a bi-weekly follow-up to 52 wasn't a bad series necessarily, but one that did not come as advertised. It was supposed to move everything in the DCU toward Grant Morrison's definitive event, Final Crisis. But it didn't. The two series were creative ships passing in the night. 
  • The character line-up for Batman and the Outsiders circa 2007. Take a look at the way the team line-up changes in these promo images, before you assume DC editorial had any sort of long-term foresight. In the end, the team they finally settled on lasted 14 issues before it was overhauled again!
  • The complete and utter mismanagement of the Archie and Milestone heroes. Few comics hold as firm a spot in my heart as the DC-sponsored Impact! and Milestone lines of the mid-'90s. When DC announced that they were incorporating these characters into their main line, I was thrilled! And then, almost immediately, they bungled it. The Archie characters were given ugly redesigns and put in the hands of the notoriously unreliable writer J.Michael Straczynski. None of the series made it past issue 10, and the crossover with the actual DCU was minimal. The Milestone characters fared slightly better, there were a couple of Brave and the Bold try-out issues, Static became a Teen Titan, and that Xombi series had top-notch talent. But Milestone creator Dwayne McDuffie was seemingly forced to write his charcters in and out of the universe in one Justice League of America storyline. The characters have languished since, with Xombi becoming a victim of the reboot, and a creatively-stillborn New 52 Static series already being canceled.
  • Justice League: Cry for Justice, a truly horrendous mini-series by a usually-good writer (James Robinson). It was initially marketed as an ongoing launch for an alternate team of Leaguers, but when that idea got scrapped mid-production, it instead morphed into a mini-series and a lead-in for one of the worst comic book storylines in recent memory (The Rise and Fall of Arsenal). Oh, and it ended with a little girl being blown up. 
All in all, it was clear that the company had good intentions, but no knowledge of how to carry them out and sustain them. Editors were driving stories, not writers, and those editors behaved like fish at the aquarium floor, constantly moving on to the next thing.

I can't fight the feeling that DC decided to do the New 52 reset because they feel that they broke too many things beyond repair in the last 7 years. This is not to say things have been universally bad for DC recently. Anything written by Grant Morrison has been sterling (I'm even an avowed Final Crisis apologist). Geoff Johns did great things with Green Lantern. The Jamie Reyes Blue Beetle series was awesome. I liked the JSA right up until Willingham left.

But the misses far outweigh the hits. And it was less about the creative teams than it was about the creative decisions. Identity Crisis was well-written and well-drawn, but there's no way to get around the fact that it featured a super-villain raping a beloved character's wife. The shot-through-the-head death of Ted Kord (the second Blue Beetle) was sadistic. Hawkman's origin was fixed and then broken again and then fixed, and then they killed Hawkwoman again for no apparent reason. Bringing back Barry Allen was a huge mistake, and should go down as a permanent black mark on Geoff Johns' record.

Before Dan Didio got in the sandbox as DC editor-in-chief, the DCU was pretty strong. It drew a pretty sharp contrast to the Marvel Universe, where the status quo nearly always resets (except, notably, in the X-Men universe). Supes had gotten married to Lois, finally. Dick Grayson - the first Robin - had come into his own as Nightwing. The Justice Society was a place for the heroes of yesterday and tomorrow. Wally West had become a better and more interesting Flash than his predecessor. Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl) had accepted her paralysis, and was a better character for it. The core Teen Titans (Connor, Tim, Bart, and Cassie) all seemed like viable and worthy successors to their adult counterparts. Not that everything was perfect, but this was a universe that hadn't just given us the illusion of change, it had given us the real thing.

And then there was the return of Hal Jordan. Now Hal's return was great. It reenergized the Green Lantern franchise. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it wasn't because of the character of Hal (he's still as uninteresting as ever). No, it was because of Geoff Johns, and the way he expanded the Green Lantern universe exponentially. Also, bringing Hal back also felt like justice in a way, because he had gone out like such a chump. However, when Johns tried to do the same for Barry Allen, the reasoning failed. The Flash universe didn't need to be expanded out; Mark Waid and Johns himself had already done that to great effect. And Barry had already died the most noble death ever, so bringing him back just seemed cruel.
 
The rub here is that the current Didio / Johns / Lee administration created most of the problems it needed to fix, so direct reversals in current continuity would have lost them face. The "New 52" was a tacit admission that they'd fucked things up, but also a clever way to avoid admitting it directly.

By the way, with the "New 52" that lack of stick-to-it-ness clearly hasn't been smoothed out. From the issue of whether or not Wonder Woman's new costume has pants (it doesn't, though it used to before they decided that it doesn't) to massive creative upheaval, the new DC is the old DC (or the last-7-years DC). By my count, 12 of the new books (Frankenstein, Justice League Dark, Stormwatch, Men of War, Hawk and Dove, Hawkman, Superman, Green Arrow, Static Shock, Voodoo, Grifter) have already changed writers (either due to reassignment or resignation). As a reader, I can handle artists moving on, but nothing destroys my faith in a book faster than a revolving door of writers. The beauty and power of comic book storytelling is very similar to that of episodic TV drama: Writers can weave long-form narratives with big and little rewards for long-term readers. This takes time and commitment.


Part 2: Wherefore Continuity?
There has been some confusion about whether or not the New 52 was a complete reset. When they first spoke about the New 52, DC brass described it as a "soft reboot", which seemingly meant "Don't worry, long-time fans, we're not throwing everything away." Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns had been working on multi-year arcs on Batman and Green Lantern respectively, and their books sold very well, so their characters' histories were left mostly intact (at least thus far and as far as we know). Green Lantern (volume 5) #1 even picked up off the cliffhanger at the end of Green Lantern (volume 4) #67.

Superman, however, is completely new again: New origin, parents dead, no more marriage to Lois. Other characters have been given drastically different roles (Cyborg, once a member of the former sidekick club The New Teen Titans, is now a founding Justice Leaguer) or have seemingly been wiped out of existence (Wally West, Donna Troy). Some characters are returning in name only, with nearly everything else changed (Superboy, Beast Boy, Terra).

So which is it? I'm guessing that DC wants us, ultimately, to treat the New 52, as, well, new. Throw any notions of the preboot DC out the window. But on the other hand we're already being reminded of things that happened in the previous continuity (e.g. in The Dark Knight #6, we learn that Bane broke Batman's back at some point in the new history) I'm guessing DC are trying to walk that line between being accessible to new fans and honoring long time fans, but saying "this is all brand new; forget everything you knew" out of one side of your mouth and "oh some of those events from the old continuity still happened, just in a slightly different way" is disingenuous. It also strongly favors new readers who haven't read and/or don't feel any connection to the old stories.

Quick example: The "Death of Superman" story, which has also been established as canon in the New 52 (well, at least the death part). I guess I can buy that the "Big 7" Justice League played the part of the story that the Booster Gold-Blue Beetle-Fire-Ice-Guy Gardner-Maxima-Bloodwynd JLA team played in the original. I guess I can accept that the subsequent emergence of Superboy and Steel didn't happen, since they both have brand new origins now. But that basically makes it the same story but completely different. I have no interest in that.

Also, I can't shake the feeling that this reboot was hastily thrown together with little foresight, and that there's no coherent plan behind it. Then again, it's fully possible that the writers (that haven't been fired or had their books cancelled) are all working in great concert to methodically unfold the brilliant construction of this new-yet-familiar universe.  Which seems more likely? See Part 1, if you're skeptical.


Part 3: What Might Have Been
I've gone through the mourning process of losing a 25 year long-form narrative (must be the way soap opera fans feel; at least we comic fans still get the characters in one form or another). I'm adult enough to move on and not lament it too much. Ultimately I read the comics for two things: characters and creators. Those are still around. And I still have all my old comics to reread whenever I want. And one thing DC did get right was its timing. If there was ever a time for a fresh start, this was it.

But the New 52 hasn't been a fresh start. DC has been touting itself as "bold", but dangling your feet in the water isn't bold. Cannonballing off the high dive is bold. What would that have looked like, you may ask? Well, let's take the case of The Flash.

I said earlier that Barry Allen shouldn't have been brought back. So, I get that Wally West's existence was totally predicated on being a former sidekick, and thus couldn't have stayed on in a new continuity. And DC already tried making Bart (Barry's age-accelerated grandson from the future; don't ask) the Flash, and that didn't go so well. Their solution, was to go back to Barry and wipe away his history (marriage, children in the future; don't ask). That's starting at the beginning, I suppose.

But what about this, instead? What if, just in the way that Robert Kanigher, John Broome, and Carmine Infantino took the name and powers of the Golden Age Flash (Jay Garrick) and made up a whole new hero, DC had tasked Brian Buccellato and Francis Manupul (the current Flash writer/artist team) to do the same thing? Flash. Speed powers. Go.

What if they had done that with every one of their heroes? Green Lantern, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Superman, even Batman. Everyone. Brand new heroes with familiar names, new origins, new secret identities. A blank slate. No sacred cows. Trust your creators to come up with something great with no tether in the past. That would have been fucking "bold".

That kind of creative revival is what we need right now, not a dressed-up second helping of stale food. The irony here is that, in trying to bring fans to their books, DC have lost one.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Comic Book Addiction Manifesto

I've decided that drastically dialing back my comic book buying habits will greatly benefit my love of comics. Here's why:

I've been thinking a lot lately about comic collecting as an addiction. With an addiction, you need a constant new supply, you spend a lot of money, energy, and time angling to get that supply, and you get cranky and out-of-sorts when you can't get it. An addiction to something that doesn't destroy your physical health or ruin your interpersonal relationships doesn't have to be a bad thing, but it does have to be called what it is.

Like drug dealers or tobacco companies, comic companies have become very reliant on their customers' addictions. They count on buyers need for a weekly fix of new comics. They rely on the loyalty of fans who have been following their favorite characters for 30 or 40 years. They bank on the small, strong community of their customers, and the peer pressure that comes along with that, i.e. "You've got to read the newest issue of Invincible! You won't believe what happened to Atom Eve!" The Internet, especially, has helped the comics companies along on this last one. SPOILERS!

Most of all, comic companies ask on their customers to abandon monetary logic. A couple of years back, I wrote about how collecting individual issues of comics doesn't make much sense, though I didn't really take my own advice. That has become even more true with Marvel's pioneering of the "more money for less pages" initiative that finds us paying $3.99 for 20 pages (of course it tends to be the best-selling books they're doing this on). Why in hell would I pay a total of $24 for a six issue story in floppies when I can get the whole thing in a hardcover collection for a discounted price of $16 on Amazon.com? Well, for the reasons mentioned above: My weekly fix; My need to keep up with the story and to avoid spoilers (most collections don't come out until 6 months after the first issue collected); My need to keep my collection intact.

I'm not done with this train of thought yet, but I want run it backwards a little bit before I come back.

I started reading comics in 1989. For the next 6 years they were what I lived and breathed. When I went away to college, interests (girls and music, namely) split my attention, I stayed with comics, mostly thanks to my amazing mom, who made a weekly trip to the local comic shop, picked up my subscription for the week, and mailed them to me at school. Often, especially in my homesick freshman year, those envelopes of comics were buoys in the middle of the ocean. They kept me afloat.

After I graduated college and moved out on my own, it wasn't long before I quit collecting comics. I don't really remember a specific reason why. I guess I wasn't super-excited about anything I was reading at the time. There was little joy in the weekly trip to the closest shop in my new city (it didn't help that the staff weren't friendly at all), money was tight, and I didn't have room in my small apartment for boxes and boxes of comics.

My love of comics went dormant, but it didn't truly go away. When I'd go back to my mom and step-dad's house for visits, I always devoted some time to getting lost in my vast collection that was housed in their basement. Eventually, I started taking comics back with me, bits at a time. I'd read them here and there, and stop in the comic shop once in awhile just to see what was going on. Four more years passed this way.

I didn't start collecting again right away. It was gradual. First I decided to finish up the stories I had abandoned halfway through, Bone and Cerebus mainly. Then I looked to fill in runs I'd loved, namely Byrne's Fantastic Four tenure. Those missions completed, I found myself wanting more.

Before long, I was back in the game, with a pull list at the local comic shop and a weekly trip on top of sporadic expeditions to search out things I'd missed during my lapsed collecting years. Catching up with five years of continuity-heavy superhero stories sounds daunting, but it was actually a blast. I had some advantages in my favor. For one, I could find runs or trades of recent comics at drastically reduced prices (Half Price Books, I can't thank you enough for your comics sections; eBay, Atomic Avenue, and Lone Star Comics, I love you), and for another, the benefit of hindsight allowed me to see what from those last 5 years had actually been worth reading.

I've realized gradually over the last couple of years that getting caught back up in the weekly comic-buying addiction ran in exact opposition to those benefits I so enjoyed after returning from exile. Buying comics individually on a weekly basis is expensive. And buying things the day they come out removes the benefit of backwards perspective. An example chosen from way too many: DC's recent Flashpoint. I love the Flash. I love the DC universe of characters. I love alternate reality stories. I've loved much of Geoff Johns' past work. I wanted to know what massive changes this story was going to bring to DC continuity. You can't fault my logic for thinking I'd like this mini-series. BUT, it kinda sucked. I didn't know that until I'd bought and read all 5 issues at $3.99 a pop. Bye bye $20. If I'd had the patience to wait it out, I could have avoided that dud.

This is why I've decided to dial it back and kick the addiction. I'm not going cold turkey though. I made a list of the comics I was buying every month, then I divided it into three sub-lists: Floppies, Trades, Gone. The individual issues I'm going to stick with are titles that I've collected that way for many years, namely Green Lantern, Flash, and Fantastic Four. The trades list includes titles that I was never buying individually (Invincible, Fables, Unwritten) and titles that I know will be worth waiting for (Batwoman). The final sub-list consists of titles that I realized I didn't care all that much about. If I don't want a paperback of a story sitting on my shelf, why do I want the individual issues in the first place?

The result is a dramatically lighter weekly haul and a noticeably heavier wallet. Sounds great, right? I hope it is.

In making this decision, my biggest obstacle was fear. Fear of missing out on stories I might love (or comics that become scarce right after release and might never be reprinted), fear of my love for my hobby diminishing, fear of ruining the comics industry. That last one sounds ridiculous, I know, but this is how comics fans think. The industry is ours. We need to keep it going. There's such a small number of us (even the very best-selling comics often barely make it to 100,000 shipped) that if even one person stops buying weekly titles and starts waiting for the trades, it takes money away from the creators and companies, and increases the likelihood of our favorite characters disappearing from our lives (at least in comics form). Waiting for the trade could mean the trade never comes.

Comic shop owner Brian Hibbs, who writes for Comic Book Resources, said as much in a recent column. He's not wrong, but he does have a horse in this race. If I wait for the trade, the least I could do is buy that trade from my local comic ship, right? Many comic fans are akin to those people who support local businesses. I could get my groceries cheaper at Walmart, but I'll pay more at my local co-op for the good of my community. Comics fans do this both in a larger comics industry sense and in a small local comic book shop sense. I see that mindset, and I feel a bit guilty, but, damn, Amazon.com and Half Price Books have good prices on things. I have a mortgage, car payment, school loans, and a toddler to feed.

And lets face it: Comics are never going to disappear. They might morph into something we don't currently recognize, but they'll be around. And 70 plus years of back issues and trades are going to be out there, often at discount prices. If they did stop making new comics today, I'd have enough older stuff to read or re-read well into old age. That's where comics are an addiction you can really love. When you recover from drug or alcohol addiction, you have to abstain forever. When you recover from a comic book addiction, you can still read them, and maybe enjoy them more than you ever did before.