Gold Digger v3 #39-50 (2003-4) Why I Don't Read Superhero Comics

Two quick notes.

First, I find that I'm quickly running out of new things to say about Gold Digger. It's not that there aren't things that need to be said, but that there's so damn of the series left to cover - after I finish this post, I still have another 50 issues of the regular series and a handful of miniseries to discuss. I'd rather not reduce these posts to simple recitations of plot points, Fred Perry's art doesn't change all that much over the next four years, and I haven't made much progress analyzing why the series appeals to me. So I'll be turning these into general posts about comics, with a Gold Digger influence.

Second, headline aside, I do read superhero comics. My currently-published favorites include Godland, Invincible, and Savage Dragon. And the latest issue of Love & Rockets, for that matter. But I hardly read any superhero comics from DC and Marvel. I'm down to just two titles from both publishers - Blue Beetle (which is ending soon, from what I hear) and Nova (which I'm dropping after the current issue). Ten years ago, I had so many superhero titles on my pull list that I qualified for my comic store's top discount bracket. Today, five.

How did that happen?

Quality Control

Gold Digger v3 #45, p. 8Gold Digger v3 #45, p. 8

Back in college my buddies and I would go out every Friday to see whatever crappy action movie had been released that week. At first, it was great fun - finally, I had a whole pile of nerd friends willing to do nerd things with me - but eventually I started to get bored. I saw some entertaining movies - Iron Monkey II and the original Mortal Kombat spring to mind - but I also saw a lot of crap. I remember standing in line for an hour and a half to see Judge Dredd and thinking that there was no way that the movie was going to be worth it. The day Eraser was released I decided that I'd had enough, and told my friends I was through with action movies.

I wasn't, of course. I've seen plenty of them in the decade since then, but I became much pickier about what I was going to see. Underground? No. Ultraviolet? No. Crank? Sure.1 I've seen a lot fewer action films - but the ones I've seen I've enjoyed a lot more.

Something similar happened with superhero comics. There was a point where I was reading five different Spider-Man comics, and not liking any of them. So I dropped them all except for Peter Parker, Spider-Man, which was being illustrated by John Romita Jr. at the time.2 The total number of superhero comics I was reading went down, but my average enjoyment went way up.

Superhero comics fill two basic needs as far as I'm concerned - my need for comics, and my need for action. There are plenty of comics out there that aren't superhero comics, and if I'm looking for action, I can that from Gold Digger or Eyeshield 21, or even from movies or video games.3 Essentially, I've reached the point where any specific superhero jones I have can be met by a handful of titles.

Overcoming Inertia

Gold Digger v3 #39, p. 10Gold Digger v3 #39, p. 10

Most people are creatures of habit, and once something becomes a habit it's awfully hard to change.

For years I had a sentimental attachment to Marvel comics, because that's what I read when I was kid.4 As an adult that somehow translated into subscribing to a pile of Spider-Man and X-Men titles that I never particularly liked. That works for manga, too - once I'd purchased volume 13 of Bleach I figured I might as well get volume 14.

But eventually inertia gives way to friction. Sure, you've might stick with Spider-Man through a rough patch - but when that rough patch is three years long you should probably re-examine your priorities. When you realize Bleach has spent the last four volumes introducing new characters without advancing the plot, it's time to stop reading Bleach. When something that used to be your favorite comic can be safely disposed of in about 5 minutes, it's time to move on.

Of course, looking at your budget and realizing you've spent way too much of your discretionary income on comic books helps too.

Gold Digger hasn't had any rough patches, and Fred's continually changing and improving so that it never gets stale. So it's still got some inertia going.

Moving Away From The Comic Store

When you only visit the comic store once a month instead of once a week, it becomes a lot easier to be shocked by the size of your pull list.

I Don't Give A Rat's Ass About Your Damn Universe

Gold Digger v3 #41, p. 11Gold Digger v3 #41

Over the last few years, DC and Marvel have been emphasizing their "universes" rather than individual characters titles. But here's the thing - the "universe" is only a garnish, not the main course. Having one is nice, but I only care to the extent that it affects the characters who live in that universe.

There are very few superhero titles that can't function without a universe. Daredevil can function just fine in a world without Spider-Man or Dr. Strange or the Fantastic Four (in fact, in some ways he functions better). Jamie Reyes may have some legacy ties to the DC Universe, but the basic concept - responsible Mexican-American teenager gets super-powers from an alien race that turns out to be not-so-benevolent - doesn't depend on those elements at all. Even a title like Infinity Inc. could be re-worked in a way that preserves the essential themes without having any specific ties to the DC Universe. It's only when you get to team-up books like Avengers or Justice League that these concepts even begin to matter.

Marvel and DC want you to be a fan of their universes, because then you feel obligated to buy everything they release. But you know what? An issue of Guardians of the Galaxy isn't the same thing as an issue of Nova no matter how much they want you to think otherwise. The Jamie Reyes Blue Beetle is not a substitute for the Ted Kord Blue Beetle - it's a complete different title (and one I happen to like, but that's besides the point).

Sure, comics like Gold Digger have their own universes. In fact, most of Gold Digger's latest storylines have been about discovering the secret origins of that universe. But enjoying that universe doesn't require anything extra on my part. I don't have to waste any effort trying to figure out where Legacy or Sky Sharks or Pirates vs. Ninjas fits into the Gold Digger universe. I don't have to worry about an issue of Ninja High School revealing key plot points because Gold Digger slipped a month. I can enjoy each series, on its own, the way it's supposed to be.

A Difference of Opinion

Gold Digger v3 #44, p. 13Gold Digger v3 #44, p. 13

Finally, the fact of the matter is that the people who run DC and Marvel have a a vastly different opinion of what makes for an interesting comic book. They're looking for exploitable media properties, and they could care less about creativity. I'm more interested in an artist's idiosyncratic expression, whether that's marketable or not.

Manga publishers have a much healthier way of doing business. Sure, they'll milk hot properties like Naruto for every last drop of revenue they can grab, but at the same time they're always introducing new titles and properties. Most of them fail to catch on, but every new Naruto makes it all worth it. It's a much less stable business model that actually requires the publisher to take some real chances - but the rewards are exponentially greater.

By becoming licensing companies, Marvel and DC have trapped themselves. They'd forgotten how to create new properties, or even how to market their existing properties they have to a new audience. DC has sunk so far that they're even acquiring the Archie heroes, because they're incapable of creating or marketing something new. And that's just sad, because no one has ever liked the Archie heroes.5 It's a project that's already doomed to failure.

By any measure Marvel and DC's approach is a short-sighted one. There's no character or property that has ever remained popular for decades on end. Even Shakespeare's plays have gone in and out of fashion. No one reads the adventures of the Shadow or the Lone Ranger any more. Eventually Superman and Spider-Man will join them on the dustbin of history or, if they're lucky, they'll experience periods of resurgence like Sherlock Holmes.

Wow, that was rambling and incoherent. Maybe I shouldn't type these under the influence of coffee.

Gold Digger v3 #45, p. 9

  1. Laugh if you want, but if you're going to watch a big dumb action movie, why not watch the biggest, dumbest action movie you can find?
  2. Then JMS starting writing Spider-Man and managed to drive me away in less than a year.
  3. And frankly, superhero comics don't even have all that much action in them anymore.
  4. In suburban Philadelphia, all the kids read Marvel. DC was for babies. Except for Batman. Batman was still cool, mostly because of to Adam West.
  5. With the possible exceptions of Pureheart the Powerful and Captain Hero, who you'll note DC isn't getting.

Comments (1)

  • Paul (09/04/2009)

    This post articulates a lot of what i've been thinking about superhero comics for the last couple years. I also really don't care about the universes, and i'm far more interested in the creators' idiosyncrasies than the franchise concerns. Well, i'm not interested in the franchise concerns at all. Good Post. I like Gold Digger, too.

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