Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Main Event

By Chris Buchner

In 1984, Marvel Comics led the charge in an all-new story gimmick: the event. An event, in comics, is essentially a massive story. It can either feature the entire company’s characters or all the characters from a select family of characters. It can span anywhere from a few related books to the entire company line, including mini-series and one-shots. When an event crosses over into a regular ongoing series, this is usually known as a tie-in. The very first event was Secret Wars. It was a gathering of several of the company’s more popular characters that spanned a 12-issue mini-series and left ramifications within each character’s own book, including Spider-Man’s black costume. There also was the added gimmick of being a promotional tool for the toys being released by Mattel at that time.

The move proved a success, and the following year saw Secret Wars II which ran 9 issues within its own book and simultaneously in every title being produced at the time. To indicate their relevance to the story, a special corner logo on the front covers told the reader it was part of the event. These tie-ins fit directly into the story as it was going on with each new issue of the mini. Not to be outdone, DC brought out their Crisis on Infinite Earths the following year, designed to condense and make sense of a twisting, turning, confusing continuity they created with the establishment of parallel worlds within their books. Successful once again, the event gimmick was secured as a comic staple and always guaranteed to make some kind of lasting change to one or many of the company’s characters (at least until new writers came in and changed the change; for more on that look up retcons, or retroactive continuity).

More events followed to varying degrees. Marvel had such events as the Fall of the Mutants, Inferno, Atlantis Attacks, X-Tinction Agenda, Infinity Gauntlet and it’s sequels, Age of Apocalypse, the Onslaught saga and the Spider-Man Clone saga, while DC had Legends, Invasion, Armageddon, The Death of Superman, Batman’s Knightfall, Zero Hour and the Final Night among others. Marvel and DC also came together for an inter-company event, Marvel vs. DC (or DC vs. Marvel, depending on who published what issue of the series), although that was a more self-contained event. Malibu and Valiant, two now defunct small publishers that came about during the comics boom, had their own events as well but rarely received the publicity of the big two. When Marvel bought out Malibu they had another inter-company crossover event between the two universes known as Black September.

Events became a regular thing in the 90s, sometimes multiple ones running at the same time. But by the late 90s, everyone about had enough. The speculators had abandoned the industry after getting burned on their investments (see COMIC BOOKS: THE FOUR-COLORED HISTORY), taking with them a good deal of the inflated sales figures the publishers were basing their decisions on. Comic fans were getting tired of being forced to buy more books in order to get the entire story. Complaints also emerged that they were becoming excessive and lacked any compelling storytelling. There have been instances, most notably the Clone Saga, where the initial story had been extended longer than originally planned due to good sales numbers to mixed results. Also, because these events ran throughout the monthly comics as well as their own book, they made comics vastly inaccessible to new readers. As a result of this and other gimmicks at the time, comic sales began to fall and with the bust of the late 90s, events were scaled back in frequency and size.

At least, until the present day. Recently, old gimmicks and trends from the days of the comic boom have begun to re-emerge in comics, the biggest gimmick of all to return, in case you haven’t already guessed, is the event. Since 2004, Marvel and DC have been going at it back-to-back with one event after another. Avengers: Disassembled. House of M. Infinite Crisis. Civil War. 52. The Other. Silent War. Annihilation. Currently, Marvel is producing World War Hulk, Annihilation: Conquest and Endangered Species, while DC is doing the weekly comic Countdown which leads into the next mega-event Final Crisis.

Events have begun to burn out many readers. While many have been well-received, the sheer number and frequency has taken its toll. Especially because the events spill over into the main books being produced, giving readers of those particular books only the partial story and forcing those who want the whole story to buy all the books. The trick to this particular gimmick is the banner tying it into the event will be slapped on books that either have a vague connection to it or none at all. For instance, Moon Knight received the Civil War banner, but the book’s only connection to the event was a brief appearance by Captain America talking about picking a side in the conflict. DC, admittedly, has been a bit more restrained with this, giving books the banners only to help people place the events within continuity while letting the books continue on with their own individual storylines, but they’ve had their moments as well.

Basically, events have undone everything comics have tried to do the last few years; make books new-reader friendly. With these continuous and convoluted stories, it’s near impossible for a new reader to come in, get enticed, and maybe pick up more without being forced to buy every book on the shelf just to understand what is going on. Established fans are beginning to get sick of the constant massive storylines; longing for the more simplistic day to day self-contained adventures comics used to have that didn’t always result in a major and shock-value change in their favorite characters. A return to business as usual, if you will. With this and the other trends from the 90s back in full swing, and the decline in readership both new and old, one can only wonder if the publishers will learn the lessons of the past before another bust comes to fruition.

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