Friday, January 1, 2010

Decade in Review: The Big Event

Welcome to the first of our ongoing series looking back at the decade in comics. Over the next month or so, we'll be taking a look at some of the trends and events that shaped the comic industry over the past ten years. Fittingly, we begin with perhaps the biggest trend of all: the Big Event.

Event books, of course, aren't a new development over the past ten years. First pioneered in the early 80's with series like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths, the giant event has long been a staple of the marketplace. Not all events are created equal, of course; after those first early successes, Marvel and DC struggled to recapture their success, turning out duds like Legends, Millenium and Invasion (and those were just some of the DC failures). But while these mega-crossovers were once just an annual excuse for readers to buy a couple tie-ins, over the lats decade they have evolved to become the single driving force in the mainstream marketplace.

That change can be laid in part at the door of what was unquestionably the biggest event of the decade, Civil War. Not since Crisis on Infinite Earths twenty years earlier had an event comic actually had a major effect on the shared universe it occurred in. This, for the most part, helps explain why events had previously been so unpopular, as the effects of these giant storylines rarely lasted for more than a couple months, and only then in the core titles.

Civil War changed that, with widespread ramifications that altered the entire concept of the Marvel Universe on a scope that far exceeded, say, Onslaught (which only really affected a small handful of books, and only then for a one year period). With Civil War, Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada and his team of hot writers re-imagined the status quo of every character in their stable. And they did it in a series which played to fanboy tastes by pitting heroes against each other. Now all those people who had argued for years about "who would win in a fight" could find out for themselves as the heroes battled it out in the streets.

And it wasn't just a gimmick (though, of course, it was that too); the ramifications of Civil War are still being explored today, as the event has been revealed to be just the first part in a multi-event arc that is still ongoing. The combination of kewl concept and lasting effects helped drive Civil War to be one of the biggest sales sensations of the decade. And that, in turn, meant one thing: imitations.

Concurrent with Civil War, of course, was DC's own (and typical for the company, confusing) tweaking of their universe, Infinite Crisis, which was also a massive sales hit. With both companies experiencing unprecedented success with their events, then, it was inevitable that both would turn to even bigger and more frequent events than in the past. Now, instead of a once-yearly crossover, events are ongoing and overlapping; ramifications from Civil War were still being explored when World War Hulk hit; that, in turn, was being cleaned up when Secret Invasion started; and Secret Invasion never really ended, as it led directly into Marvel's ongoing non-event event, Dark Reign, which itself spawned multiple events-within-events like the upcoming Siege storyline.

The downsides to this phenomenon, of course, are multiple, starting with the fact that an industry indebted to large scale events is by definition unstable. Previously, a long standing title might have a solid baseline sale figure that was occasionally boosted by an event. Now, however, it seems to be the opposite: fluctuating sales that drop when there is not an event. In part, of course, this is because fans are being trained to follow events (an creators) rather than characters and titles; the famous brand loyalty that used to exist within the comics community, and so often resulted in fans habitually buying titles that they may not actually enjoy any longer, is becoming a thing of the past. After all, if Event X is the most important thing going, and a specific series is not involved in that event, is there any reason to buy it? Titles and characters who aren't involved in events are, in effect, marginalized by their absence.

And in turn this also dictates uneven stories within those individual titles, as it is increasingly difficult for creators to plot and carry out extended arcs with specific characters without being interrupted by the need to have the latest event intrude and play hob with their ideas. This, too, is nothing new -- Roger Stern's Avengers in the mid-80's, for example, was diluted by forced Secret Wars II crossover -- but again, it's the scale that is different now. Indeed, some titles seem to have no existence at all outside of these event tie-ins.

Of course, events aren't all bad; at their best, they can offer grand storytelling on a scale impossible for a single title to approach and can, as has been seen with Civil War, generate huge excitement among the fanbase for titles and characters that had been languishing (Captain America being an example that we will look at in greater detail later this month).

But while events draw in some fans with the flash and dazzle, they also drive away others who are turned off either by dissatisfaction with how the story affects their favorite titles or through simple budget concerns over needing to buy so many tie-ins to understand the event. Which may help explain a strange phenomenon: while event books continue to grab the strongest sales of the decade, overall, sales continue to slide.

Whether or not event books are the solution or the problem, then, is something that we'll have to wait a little longer to see.

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