Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Confusing Choices by Major Companies

It amazes me sometimes that major corporations can make choices that seem so obviously misguided, yet they pass through the many layers of approval needed to get a project greenlit. Here's a couple of things that have baffled me recently.

The first would be the just announced X-Men: First Class project. Of all the comics properties, X-Men is my favorite, but I've been generally unmoved by the four films to date. I'd argue that X-Men's serial nature makes it ill suited to film, which requires more structured stories. The X-Men stories that people remember, like Dark Phoenix or Days of Future Past, all draw on a lot of continuity and character development, unlike things like The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. The major difference between X-Men and other comics properties is the fact that the X-Men characters for all of Claremont's run were actual human characters, unlike most DC or Marvel heroes, which are archetypes.

Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine and many others all grew and changed over the course of the run, and you can't capture that in a film. But, at least the first two X-Men films had a coherent internal mythology and did a decent job of capturing the characters and their dynamic. Last Stand didn't work creatively, but I don't think it ruined public perception of the franchise. So, I'm really baffled why Fox chose to stop making new X-Men movies and start doing prequels. Wolverine makes sense since he was the series' breakout character, but why do a movie about Professor X and Magneto? We all know how it will end, and I just can't imagine a really good movie possibly being made out of that premise. It's something that's interesting in the context of an ongoing narrative, but not in and of itself.

Audiences have consistently shown a reluctance towards prequels, outside of ones that are total reboots. So, why do that instead of just moving forward with 'present day' stories for the franchise? There was a great setup for a Young X-Men movie coming out of The Last Stand, focusing on Rogue, Iceman and Kitty Pryde. I'd have loved to see that, and it seems like the perfect way to target teens and do a soft reboot to alleviate the bad taste of Last Stand. I'm sure First Class will do okay, but I think doing something based loosely off New Mutants, with some of the existing characters in teaching roles and a cast of younger mutants based on the teen characters from the comics would be a much bigger hit with fans and general audiences. I'm as big an X-Men fan as it gets and I have no desire whatsoever to see First Class.

Another recent baffler is the comic book Ultimate New Ultimates. The Ultimates used to be arguably Marvel's premiere franchise, a best seller that was talked up all over the net, even its nonpresence, during the length delays, were a prime talking point. But, since the end of Millar's The Ultimates 2, the branding of the franchise has been absolutely baffling. First, Marvel did the apparently abysmal Ultimates 3 with a different creative team.

After this failure, it might have been smart to bring back the original writer, which they did. But, for some reason, Marvel chose not to go with a simple title that would explain what the book is about. Instead, they made Millar's book Ultimate Comics Avengers, and have another book called Ultimate Comics New Ultimates. As someone who loved The Ultimates, I'd be pretty inclined to buy new Millar Ultimates stuff, but even as a gigantic comic book fan, I have no clue what the content of either book is. And, who was the one who greenlit a book called Ultimate Comics New Ultimates? We know it's a comic and we know it's Ultimate. Why not just call it Ultimate Pages with Images and Text on Them That Are Previously Unseen and Still Ultimate In Case You Didn't Catch That the First Time.

What separates this book from Millar's? How does it draw from the previous Millar Ultimate series? I have no idea, and I'm not particularly inclined to work to find out. And, keep in mind, this is in the line that's designed to be accessible to new readers.

How are these choices made? Shouldn't the goal of branding to make it clear what something is. Apparently not in this case, and that's a big problem in comics in general. Book names are not self explanatory, what separates Uncanny X-Men from X-Men: Legacy from Astonishing X-Men from just plain X-Men? The big problem with any initiative to draw in new readers is that you can put out a book like the early days of the Ultimate line that is supposed to be accessible, but how is someone who isn't already familiar with comics going to know to pick up Ultimate Spider-Man instead of Amazing Spider-Man?

A similar problem from both Marvel and DC is trade paperback chronology. Trying to pick up Ed Brubaker's Captain America, there's a bunch of Volume 1s and 2s, but how do they all piece together? There's no master number system, so where does The Death of Captain of America Vol. 1 fit in comparison to Red Menace Book Two? I can understand not wanting to have Captain America Vol. 20 out there, but make it easier for people to read your books, not harder.

DC usually does a better job, but it can be hard to piece together stuff from company crossovers. I'd love to see an official guide to reading all of Geoff Johns' books or how all of Morrison's fit together. That would help them sell more books, because if you could show the connection between Seven Soldiers and Final Crisis, that expands the audience of both titles.

I'm the kind of person who will do a bit of research to figure out what's going on, but a lot of people won't, and you should make it as easy as possible to follow a series. Marvel and DC aren't really doing that most of the time.


Robert Ring said...

Patrick, I feel like you're speaking my thoughts exactly. I feel like Marvel and DC sort of dig holes to entrench their readers in their books, and at the same time keep others from having any idea of how to enter. Simplification is desperately needed here.

The X-Men film franchise, as you say, also suffers, but from an entirely different problem. Why do the studios feel the need to screw with continuity -- even within the film franchise -- so badly? Not only does it cause confusion, it would also seem to hurt sales. If I see a movie I love, and another movie comes out that exists within the same world (i.e. the same continuity), I'm going to be more likely to go see that movie because I want to see what else happens in that universe. With the X-Men films, though, there are so many disconnects that continuity practically does not exist. My hope is that once the rights to the films go back to Marvel and Disney, they'll be able to retain some sense of order.

Also, your thoughts on X-Men being more "human" characters, and other DC and Marvel characters being archetypes interests me. I tend to view most of Marvel as being human and most of DC being archetypal.

Richard said...

"I'd love to see an official guide to reading all of Geoff Johns' books or how all of Morrison's fit together."

And it's not as if they couldn't find folks qualified to prepare these guides...!

(I never warmed to Final Crisis but JLA Classified #1-3 is one of my favorite things ever, and drawing the lines between that and Seven Soldiers and the regular JLA series would be a cinch.)

Patrick said...

It's just really dumb business. If you're reading stuff like Final Crisis at the time, you'll probably be aware of the Batman RIP connection, and maybe the Seven Soldiers or JLA Classified. But, if you pick it up now, it's unlikely, and it seems foolish to not capitalize on ways to get people to read more of your comics.