I haven’t been around in the video game space for (checks last post) over a month and half. I have to explain something. I go through cycles when it comes to which medium I marathon at any given time. For a variable amount of time I will have an intense desire to immerse myself in one medium of my interest. These are generally books, movies, TV shows, video games and the latest one comic books. I also tend to marathon works within that particular medium. It’s how I got through all 5 season of The Wire in about a week and half and at one point in college I nearly managed to get through all of the AFI top 100 movie list before my artistic consuming desire moved on. I have no way of telling what I feel like moving on to and given the length of this marathon session I think I may have gotten comic books twice in a row. It’s a bit random. Comic books only really came up twice before (Like I quantify this anyway.) since I really started reading them. Thanks to my local library having a pretty sizable collection of trades, a great comic store 20 minutes drive from me and an internet connection it’s pretty easy to know what is good and not get too burned.
The last two times I marathoned comics it was a less difficult proposition. Watchmen, the movie, was on the horizon so the natural thing was to read the book first. Thanks to DC publishing a bunch of free teaser comics entitled “After Watchmen, What Next” I got a taste of plenty of their most critically acclaimed titles and read a good deal of the stand alone greats. Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One Arkham Asylum, Joker, and a few of the more contained series like Fables, Ex Machina, Sandman, DMZ and Y the Last Man. I kept up with the trades as my library got them or in the case of Fables bought them outright. But this time I had read all the stand-alone stuff and I wanted to try and dive into the mainstream superhero comics.
Without the internet, an intense desire to figure what was what, and a single mindedness bordering on obsessive compulsive I would have never made it. I would have done what many other new readers did, read one or two and walk away. They are not easy to get into and now three paragraphs in I get to the point of why I’m writing about comics on a site called ‘The Game Critique.’ Trying to get into mainstream superhero comics gave me a very strong impression and emotional resonance to anyone who might try to get into mainstream video gaming. There are so many hurdles and difficulties that run in parallel within the niche cultures of the two mediums.
Starting in the right spot is almost impossible. To someone new it looks like a monolithic wall with everything blurring together. You have to make your own crack in it and start climbing from there hoping not to slide off into oblivion. It may prove fruitful and it may prove disastrous. I like X-men, I have said so many times. I love the basic premise and the conflict that exists on more philosophical grounds than many other comic books. Or at least that’s the impression I got looking in from the outside at the premise and implications alone. I didn’t grow up on the comics, I grew up on the original cartoon and Evolution as well the Brian Singer’s movies. The present state of the comics gave me a huge ‘what the hell.’ Kieron Gillen, bless him, is trying, and does an admiral job trying to make new comers feel welcome, but it’s a sort of Sisyphean task when at present there are 13 present titles all existing in the same universe continuity. Don’t get me started on the ended titles and titles from other continuities like Ultimate X-Men or X-Men 2099 etc. In fact the Ultimate universe was created by Marvel to allow new readers get into comics without having to worry about all the decades of continuity or tons of interloping titles. The thing is 11 years out and there are 34 main and mini series all contributing to the overall world continuity at my last count. In fact, the alternative universe miniseires, or in the case of Spider-Girl, long running alternative titles are much easier to get into than the main stuff. Plus, most if not all of these long running series have gone through multiple writers with different visions and ideas. Some are great and others not so much making the idea of a title being where to start ludicrous when they are inconsistent at best.
I can’t help but feel there is similar type of befuddlement when it comes to mainstream video games. What do you get when everything looks the same to you. You do what I did, you go for the brand. You hear Call of Duty and Guitar Hero and Wii as the biggest sellers and conflate popular with good whether or not the titles deserves it. Call of Duty has 3 different studios working on the series last I checked and Guitar Hero had around 4 before it finally went belly up. But you don’t know that.
That’s another thing, the reliance of franchises and well-worn IPs rather than new and fresh concepts. In the upcoming DC reboot here are 4 new Green Lantern books, 4 Superman related titles, 3 Justice League and a whopping 9 Batman titles. I’ve already talked about the X-Men and it was only recently that Spider-Man got cut back to a single title, though the new Spider Island event is causing about half a dozen new miniseries to pop up that you have to buy to get the full story. Plus with all these titles, how exactly are they different. Rogue alone appears in three books at present and she is apparently in Iran, Atlantis and the far side of the galaxy all at the same time. I’m sorry I cannot follow your storylines if you can’t either.
Maybe you think yourself ambitious or a conscientious consumer and decide to look up what the critics say. People whose jobs it is to know what is what. Comics have a tendency to like the upper end of the review scale. I have done nothing but anecdotal analysis on review scores sufficed to say I see a lot of 7s and 8s, have seen only a handful of scores below a 5 and apparently a very derided run of Action Comics described as “junk” and get 5s and 6s. I don’t really have to go into the similarities here, do I?
Further on the subject of comic “news and review sites” I looked around and found what I surmise to be the biggest or rather what came up as first on Google for very broad search terms were Comic Vine, Comic Book Resources, Weekly Comic Book Review and IGN Comics. These sites have a constant cycle of news/preview/review going on. Very little attention is played to what had just come out and is always forward looking sometimes to titles and events that won’t happen for months. The X-Men Schism event comic had news stories about it for months that tell us the ending in the press release. (Every review I’ve read so far ends talking about how they don’t quite see how this ending is going to come about from this premise or the newly revealed details.) This is a majority narrative medium, much more than video games, and we’re being told what is going to happen during the preview cycle. Or something that got more mainstream coverage, the new Ultimate Spider-Man revealed as a half-black half-Hispanic newcomer. The actual part of the comic that contained that comic was essentially all revealed in previews and was on the nightly news.
Criticism for comics is hard to find even when you know what you are looking for. I get the strong feeling there are entire circles devoted to doing deep and thoughtful criticism, the equivalent of what I and my ilk do for video games, but even with some diligence I could not find any. Only when Kieron Gillen linked to a post on twitter did I find any. I can’t help feel it’s the same for video games. If a person wants to read lengthy analysis, he’ll be hard pressed to find any. (This was proven somewhat, the weekend after I initially wrote this at the Freeplay convention in Melbourne, Australia.) He might get lucky with one of our sites and find the all the connecting blogs, but it’s kind of if you already don’t know where it is you wont find it situation. The Isle of de Muerta of comic or video game culture. And that’s only if you know what to call what you are looking for. Is “Criticism” a common word anymore? I honestly don’t know.
Speaking of culture it appears some of the ongoing debates for comics are the high prices of the books, where as recent as a few years ago people were complaining about (I think it was Marvel) upping the price of their books by another 50 cents, and the smaller amount of material gotten for that price. Complaints of rushed products, books written by committee, editorial mandates, recycled ideas, generic copycats, gratuitous T and A and sexism in the works and production.
What does it all mean? Not much really. The complexity of the medium and the unhelpfulness of those already entrenched is something we all are academically aware of as a thing, but we ourselves are so entrenched in the culture that we can’t feel it like an outside does. The comparisons here to comics, sociologically, gave me that resonance. I felt what it was like to be an outsider, someone with an open mind willing to try and wanting to like this niche, but was being pushed away at nearly every turn by and instituted system not designed for newcomers. There is a high barrier to entry. If it weren’t for all the factors above, I feel like I would have given up myself. Write it off as a failed experiment and go back to the safety of my already established hobbies.
But also like video games, no one either sees these issues of newcomer friendliness or they don’t care enough to do anything. This may have sounded like three pages of bitching, but realize all of these complaints come from a man who bothered to spend a huge amount of his free time trying to wrap his head around a potential new hobby. I found hurdles and problems the average consumer will never encounter because they will give up long before reaching them. I wanted to slide in, to be able to enjoy what so many others do. Please remember this is a mere outlining of issues coming from a person who bothered to try. If I weren’t as demented as I am when it comes to consuming media as I am, I wouldn’t have bothered and comics would have lost themselves a fan just because they couldn’t be bothered to help me.
I don’t know if it’s too late for the comic industry. If it’s too entrenched in its ways to make the giant shift necessary to rise up out of the niche market and produce something better. (I have to admit I was unimpressed with most of the contemporary stuff, if I could follow it at all.) I’m told that there might be hope in the indie market, but I know nothing about that and there was nothing from the big sites that could help me in that regard. Plus, why should I gamble my money on unproven material that may go belly up as soon as I start?
Yes, I know exactly what that sounds like, but it’s how I feel. This last month and half has given me a deeper appreciation for many facets of my own culture. Price sensitivity is something I’ve always had, but I’ve also had massive amounts of information, a critical support network, and understanding of genre and creators to go along with it so I could spend my money on the riskier titles. With comics, not so much. Piracy is another thing I see in a whole new light when it comes not only to the high prices, but more importantly the clogging of the market of so many titles, so many of which seem the exact same. Additionally, there was also a matter of availability. So many older titles disappear or haven’t been put in trade or can’t be found in legal channels.
But what I feel worst about is I’ve also experience a sort of loneliness when it comes to wanted to discuss what I’ve just read and unable to engender it from anybody, because it is just that obscure. And I follow over 250, let’s face it, geeks on twitter. I may be connected to a large video game critic circle, but it’s a shot in the dark if anyone I’m talking to has read or even heard of something I just finished and want to talk about. I’ve gotten one or two conversations, but even they felt lacking. It’s what it feels like to have a burgeoning enthusiasm ready to spill out and feel a connection, to share an opinion and converse with someone else with a similar or better yet a diametrically opposed one and have a fulfilling conversation. And then watch that entire potential die, as it gets lost, drowned out by everything else, ignored into the abyss of the chatter. Loving a work and wanting to spread it to anyone who will listen, but no one will or can.
However, there is one other thing I’ve gained a huge amount of respect for, something so often derided by my fellow critics as link bate or wastes of time: the Top 10 list. You have no idea how useful this is. Who give a fuck what the numbers are, here is a list of ten things that someone who knows far more than me says pulled ahead of the pack under some criteria. I have a starting place now. It pisses me off even more now when I think about how the top X lists have gotten co-opted by the initiated and are now written directly for them. They aren’t there for them. They are there to generate discussion and be a starting place for new comers. They are the premade handholds in those monolith rock walls, but they don’t work if you make them to pander to the fanboys, putting the wrong kind of thought into them or no thought at all.
I went in wanting to read some great stories, see someone superheroes kick some ass and have a different part of my brain tickled. I got that, but I also got a crash course in the hell anybody experiences when they step into our world. Now my only problem is, I don’t know what to do with that feeling.