DC Supers Shows – Just OK Enough To Not Be Terrible

I’ve started watching a handful of the DC superheroes shows, and while I’m not blown away by any of them, they do, for the most part, feel ‘adequate’. They are dumb, kinda cutesy, feel good dreck you can enjoy with the entire family. I just wish it went beyond that into something genuinely enjoyable.

I watched most of the first season of Supergirl, and yeah, it has a quirky charm to it. The biggest issue I have is with Jimmy Olsen; no, it’s not that they made Jimmy Olsen black, it’s that they’ve made Jimmy Olsen a heart-throb that all the women swoon over. There should be nothing cool about Jimmy Olsen other than that he’s Superman’s pal, otherwise it just feels wrong.

One of the best parts of Supergirl is that it fairly explicity exists in a verse where Clark and Kara are the only supers. This resolves the biggest problem that the DC Universe has that while there’s always some cataclysmic crisis on the horizon, there should theoretically be a glut of superheroes to take care of it.

I’ve started watching The Flash, as well; again it’s a kind of quirky, harmless, “oh, we’re a lovable bunch of goofs working to save the world” show. I wouldn’t say I like it more or less than Supergirl; it’s different. While the megaplot of Flash is more interesting than Supergirl’s, the day-to-day is more tiresome. It’s frustrating to watch Flash hopelessly moon over Iris who is a pretty garbage love interest.

Strangely, the setting premise of the Flash reminds me more of Static Shock than any Flash stuff I was particularly familiar with (which admittedly isn’t much).

While it’s certainly a different generation of show from the current crop, Smallville, which I’ve started on with my girlfriend, shows that things really haven’t changed that much. It’s clearly a template for what I’ve seen of the other series so far. I’m not sure how much of it I can take; everything I suspected about this show that I used to justify not watching it first run is pretty correct-BS teen highschool drama with supervillains thrown in. The only interesting hook is pinpointing when and why Lex Luthor becomes a villain – imagine how many lives could’ve been saved if Jonathan Kent weren’t just constantly a dick to him!

The supervillain of the week grind in these shows is frankly pretty boring. None of the villains are particularly developed or interesting, and the shows’ structure seems to exist in part to distract from how uninteresting the interactions between most of the characters are. It’s like, they want to come across as shows with heart, but they really don’t have any.

Somehow, Lois and Clark managed to pull of what these shows try with fewer special effects and next to no supervillains. Somehow the characters just felt more real and more warm than the current crop of DC shows. I can’t put my finger on it, and to just write it off as “well, Lois and Clark was a rom com with some action and the new ones are actually superhero shows” seems to not quite hit the nail on the head, even if it’s partial true.

Unless something changes, the current DC supers shows are never going to have good enough special effects for the superhero aspect to carry them, and I really feel like they don’t have good enough character actors and writers to bring the levels of charm necessary to come close to the old Lois and Clark’s tier of entertainment. Frankly, the main thing these shows have going for them are being recognizable superhero properties that people are hungry for and being family friendly enough that folks can watch them with the kids.

Of the current crop of DC shows, iZombie is far and away the best, and it’s not a supers show, and it’s barely a comic-book show, because the first thing they did was throw out nearly everything from the comic but the name. But it’s got good writers and better character actors than the other CW DC shows, and is just an all-around better watch. It’s really in a class of its own.

Misfit Super Teams: Runaways and Batman and the Outsiders

I’m mostly a DC fan, but I’ve got to admit, I have a soft spot for Runaways. It’s one of the Marvel titles I enjoy enough to consider trying to follow, or at least catch up on the various gaps in what I’ve read.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Runaways is the kids of a group of Supervillains discover that their parents are evil and (TITLE!) run away. They (I think, I missed that volume) kill their parents and take over their secret base, trying to cope with the power vacuum of villainy that the removal of their parents created.

I particularly like the older run, as it presents an ongoing relatively non-episodic story that more adheres to the narrative structure that got me into comics in the first place (graphic novels & manga).  I still have a hard time with strictly episodic superhero stories, though I’ve warmed up to mainstream comics in general a bit in the form of short arcs within a continuity. I’ll admit that one thing that kept me away from Runaways for some time despite loving the first volume was the assumption on my part that, like all other ongoing western comics, there would be no satisfying resolution and eventually the story would go off in radically divergent directions away from the establishing narrative, the characters would get replaced or Flanderized, and it would turn into a hugely disappointing unending mess. Well, I’m starting to try to just enjoy the ride, and once the road gets too bumpy, I’ll get off.

But back on topic, I think the reason why Runaways is the only Marvel title I really enjoy is that the characters perceive the rest of the Marvel Universe kind of in the way that I perceive it. Wolverine thinks he’s bad but he’s really just kind of a jerkass, Spiderman thinks he’s cool and hip and funny but actually he’s a giant tool, the X-Men are lame-os trying to be edgy, the Avengers are cool until you meet them. I actually relate to these Marvel characters because of their utter disdain for their fellow (and far more iconic) Marvel heroes, and it’s a strange feeling. They’re kind of a bizarro Teen Titans; without the guidance of A-tier heroes, they make a lot of mistakes and bad choices, but because of their interactions with the rest of the Marvel heroes, you still get the gooey angst similar to that which the Titans have for being in the shadow of their “parent” figure heroes, but since none of them are the children or side-kicks of Marvel staples, there’s not the understanding that they’ll patch things up with and eventually take up the mantle of a Jerkass Justice Leaguer Avenger or X-man. And as much as I love Raven, Nico is, if not a better character, a more interesting take on the dark magic girl insofar as how her powers work.

What I read of Volume 3 (in magazine terms, not collection terms) confirmed some of my fears about the devolution into villain of the weekisms, but the other collections I read have convinced me that I definitely need to go back and finish the stuff from Volumes 1 & 2.

And speaking of Superhero teams, in my quest to find the optimal insertion point into Batman nearly 80 year history, I grabbed a DC Showcase collection of Batman and the Outsiders from the library.

Why do I say I’m looking for an optimal insertion point? I know this probably makes me a terrible Batman fan, but my favorite Batman is early to mid-90s; I read the Dark Knight Archives that had the first 4 issues of Batman, and found it painfully dull; I read the DC Showcase Brave and the Bold Team Ups collection because I loved the Brave & the Bold cartoon show and wasn’t sure what was worse, the awful D-list villains, the overly long and boring stories, or the bad silver age 1-liners; for my money, Azbats aside, the Knightfall era is some of the best Batman I’ve read outside of some one-offs.

Why did I pick Batman and the Outsiders? Well, I liked the (wildly reimagined) Outsiders’ cameos in the Brave and the Bold cartoon and the publication dates of the Batman and the Outsiders are far closer to the era of Batman I know that like than the era of Batman I know that I don’t like.

It’s getting there. There are still some traces of bad 4th-wall breaking Silver Age cheese, though it’s generally only the occasional panel and it never goes into the full on “blah blah blah, good readers!” hyperbolic nonsense which made the Silver Age team-ups unreadable to me. The setup and introduction is a bit awkward (‘I’m quitting the JLA because you won’t invest cosmic conflict level resources into intervening in a civil war in a country smaller than Luxembourg to help me save Lucius Fox!’ ‘You guys who showed up out of nowhere and almost botched this for me: let me set you up in Bruce Wayne’s assorted safe houses. You’re my new team, because that little shit Robin is with the Teen Titans now!’), but the book finds its rhythm quickly. The interplay between the characters, particularly Halo/Katana and Halo/Geo-Force, is the strongest aspect of the title and helps to compensate for where the title lacks in good episodic stories. I’m generally not interested in whatever bottom tier villain they’re fighting, but I’m interested enough in finding out how the team members’ relationships evolve that I’m more than willing to keep reading.

I think the Outsiders hit their stride with the Teen Titans crossover; revealing Terra as Geo-Force’s missing sister suddenly makes the Outsiders relevant (in my reader’s mind, at least) to the DC Universe and its overall story. Geo-Force is a good, if troubled dude, and knowing that his sister is evil, Batman knows his sister is evil, and that his sister is going die in the not too distant continuity future… there’s gonna be some Pathos, man!  Plus, getting to see some vintage Robin Resentment and a cameo of a pre-Robin Jason Todd provides some nice fuel for my continuity-nerd furnace.

As for actual continuity, though, it’s kind of a problem since Batman and the Outsiders is, comparatively speaking, immediately before Crisis, meaning that it could’ve been wiped out partially, completely, or not at all. The Real Batman Chronology Project indicates that post-Crisis flashbacks indicate that Batman did leave the JLA, did form the Outsiders, and the lineup of Teen Titans who show up in that early crossover does hold up in post-Crisis continuity, but just how much can be ascribed to the life Batman from Year One actually lived in the second decade of his career is up in the air, and since it was so close to Crisis, there was not a wholesale post-crisis reintroduction of Batman’s formation of the Outsiders.

Regardless of its standing within Modern Age continuity, my conclusions are:
Batman and the Outsiders is worth checking out.
While the writing is still a bit dodgy, Pre-Crisis Batman is back on my Radar.
If they aren’t stupid expensive, I might someday pick up some original issues of B&tO to get a better appreciation of them; the Showcases might be a “bargain” but coloring can be the difference between an okay and a great comic.
Geo-Force fighting Superman at Christmas because Superman & Batman wouldn’t let him murder a professor who had been sexually abusing the girl he was in love with and drove her to a suicide attempt was one hell of a crazy story!

#ChangeTheCover: So, the Artist Withdrew the Batgirl Variant Cover

Some people are saying that DC pulled the cover, but based on what I’ve seen, the artist himself, after the campaign against the cover, asked DC to withdraw the art and DC complied. It’s hard to not look at this as his being bullied into pulling down his art. Because that’s pretty much what happened.

I’m a huge Batman fan. While I’ve had some problems with what’s been done in certain Batman comics either stylistically or storywise (I hate how Catwoman is drawn when she’s in costume and I kind of hate all of the non DCAU portrayals of Harley, and I hate that one artist whose name I forget who makes all of the Robins look like they’re 40 year old Dustin Hoffmans trying to take a rock-hard dump). I have a lot of mixed feelings about the Killing Joke. What the Joker does is disgusting and the story leaves one feeling disgusted. But isn’t such a visceral reaction a sign of a powerful story?

Anyway, this variant cover was supposed to be an homage to the Killing Joke.batgirl-41-cover

The biggest complaint was that it portrayed Batgirl in a state of fearful helplessness and victimhood. Which is interesting, because the usual complaint about comics is when some character is showing off ginormo-tits in an anatomically impossible pose. Or ass in the air (I don’t care what anyone says that Spider-Woman cover was ugly and weird looking for more reasons than just ‘too-much-sexy’).

One thing that a lot of people forget (or just don’t know, because the people complaining don’t read comics) is that Batman is (at least Post-Crisis) a horror comic*. A lot of the stories look into the character’s deepest darkest fears. Serious House on Serious Earth is high-octane nightmare fuel. And that’s the sort of feeling this cover is meant to invoke. The other thing that these people are overlooking is that it is fairly typical of Batman covers to show some scene prior to the heroes’ big table-turn where they are powerless, helpless, about to be killed (often in a gruesome manner) by whichever rogue is featured in that issue. Needless to say, when people threw out the “You don’t see Batman being depowered and violated on HIS covers!”, the response was a flood of classic covers depicting the Dark Knight in all manner of predicament. Talk about Batman being depowered, what about that iconic cover of Bane snapping Batman’s back against his knee?

Bats don't bend that way!

Bats don’t bend that way!

On one hand, when Barbara was paralyzed, she didn’t come back as Batgirl, while Bruce came back as Batman. On the other hand, when Barbara came back as Oracle, she had become a more interesting and dynamic character. When Bruce finally came back, he was still just Batman, just poorly drawn and with 2 foot long bat ears (seriously, Troika had some crap art and was a pretty big let down as far as a comeback arc, especially after how well written Prodigal was).

Anyway, here are just a few examples of Batman in peril at the hands of some rogue.

I don't know what's scarier: what's about to happen to Batman or those goddamn 2 foot ears!

I don’t know what’s scarier: what’s about to happen to Batman or those goddamn 2 foot ears!

batman_189

See? Even the cover says he’s gripped by fear!

Batman, helpless at the hands of the Joker!

Batman, helpless at the hands of the Joker!

I can't think of anything more disempowering than being flying-kicked by three dudes at the same time.  Except for maybe being flying kicked by more than three dudes at the same time.  Or in combination.

I can’t think of anything more disempowering than being flying-kicked by three dudes at the same time. Except for maybe being flying kicked by more than three dudes at the same time. Or in combination.

 

Batman is totally about to be cut in two in that one cover!

Batman is totally about to be cut in two in that one cover!

*:This tends to be played with a lot more in the one-off graphic novels and some of the side titles, such as Legends of the Dark Knight and Shadow of the Bat (especially Shadow of the Bat).

Minor Update:
If this guy is representative of the rest of the creative team on Batgirl, it’s probably a shit book that doesn’t deserve a good cover anyway.
Cameron Stewart

 

Arkham City

Over the Christmas holiday, I ‘finished’ Arkham City. And by Finished, I mean I got through the basic story mode which gave me 51% completion. Haven’t finished the Catwoman stuff and haven’t started they Harley stuff.

Arkham City left me with a lot of strange mixed feelings. I’ll go ahead right off and say that I enjoyed it a lot. There were some things I was a bit ‘eh’ about, a few things I was all ‘huh?’ about, but plenty I was ‘yeah!’ about.

-Interspersing the Catwoman content with the main game would’ve been more effective if it weren’t so stacked toward the backend. I realize that this is important for story purposes, but it was strange to start the game as Catwoman for one fight, play as Batman through the prologue, do a Catwoman mission, then play almost the entire rest of the story as Batman before doing another Catwoman mission. According to the game stats, after the main story ends and you start playing as Catwoman again, her story is only about 20% complete. So, we’ll see.

-Mixed feelings about the Riddler stuff. I didn’t mind the Riddler stuff in Arkham Asylum, and eventually even got 100% completion, though it did feel like a tacked on element. The Riddler is much better integrated into Arkham City, and he legitimately feels like the most powerful and dangerous Batman villain because of his shear ability to have crap everywhere; he has the rest of the inmates pretty terrified, too. I like, to an extent, that getting Riddler trophies is a bit more of a challenge than simply waiting until you had the right bit of equipment, but at the same time, you’re still waiting until you have that right bit of equipment, AND you’re looking for more trophies in a MUCH larger and less open area. And some of the traps really ARE so mind-boggling that you’re left thinking “I must not have the right item yet”, put it off, and the next thing you know, the game is over. Riddler’s puzzles, while more rewarding are also much more daunting, and hunting them all down feels like the wearying chore that Riddler intends them to be.

-The augmented reality missions probably need to be done much earlier than I tried to do them. Preferably before everyone and their dog has a gun. I didn’t finish these, and they were pretty annoying. Very Superman 64.

-While it’s not quite a “thrill is gone” kind of thing, the atmosphere is different; Arkham City is creepy but in a different, urban decay sort of way, while Arkham Asylum is creepy in the haunted mental hospital sort of way. As terrible as Arkham City appears on the surface, in a way, that’s kind of how I imagine most of Gotham looking. It’s still a stealth game; gameplay wise, aside from the rooftops thing, it plays like the same game as Arkham Asylum, but the difference is that Arkham Asylum felt like a horror game. I spent the first half of Arkham Asylum (especially the platform puzzle in the caverns) just wondering when Killer Croc was going to pop out of somewhere and eat me. I never felt that sort of anticipation in Arkham City. And the Mad Hatter side mission, while amusing, didn’t come close to that first encounter with Scarecrow in the morgue.

-Two-Face felt like a tease. Sure, he has a faction of thugs sandwiched between Penguin and Joker’s territory, but other than the prologue, he’s fairly irrelevant to the story, which is surprising considering all of the foreshadowing in Arkham Asylum that he might be a major player in a sequel.

-Screw Ra’s al Ghul’s flight challenges. I probably died on these more times than in that big brawl with Joker near the end.

-I feel bad for Penguin that his Iceberg Lounge and natural history museum happened to be in the part of Gotham that got converted into Arkham City. But it’s great for players. The Cobblepot Museum is by far one of my favorite parts of the game. Damn shame that the whole place has fallen into ruins, but Penguin’s really made the best of things with it. I do wonder where Jay, Raven and Lark were. (it got blown up in Gates of Gotham, which I got for Christmas, too!)

-The ruins of “Old Gotham” and Wonderland Park had kind of a silly feel to them and reminded me a bit of Bioshock. It was fun fighting the league of shadows there, though. My opinions on Ra’s and the League have softened over the years, in no small part due to Liam Niason; Arkham City makes this work.

-The concept behind Hugo Strange’s Arkham City makes sense. His big secret plan that he’s carrying out for the real big-bad makes less sense. Poor Warden Sharp. You just know that he was hoping that he could’ve been the villain this go round, but alas, it was not to be.

-Some fairly big name Rogues die ultra grisly deaths, which was kind of a surprise. Lazarus Pits, though, mean that death is certainly not the end.

-Like with Arkham Asylum, Batman’s character model reflects, over the course of the game, the beating he’s taken and the damage to the Bat-suit. By the end, Batman looks like hell, and everyone who sees him is all “Holy, crap, what happened?”

-The first few hours of the game almost trolled me into complaining “Where’s Oracle?”

-Combat continues to be ace.

-Changing up the boss-fights was a big improvement over the original Arkham. Plus, getting to go head to head against more of Batman’s Rogue Gallery was pretty rewarding (Two-Face letdown aside).

-Hooray for the gun disruptor!

-The inevitable-villain-betrayal syndrome is a bit comical, though really I’m pretty sure it’s played for laughs. I couldn’t help but chuckle at Bane’s “Oops, sowry, Baht-mahn!” when he catches you with a charge attack when you’re fighting the squad of Tyger elites together.

-Harley Quinn skanks it up less than the packaging art implies; this is not necessarily a bad thing.

-Something I would’ve liked to have seen more of was the conflict between the opposing gangs. Coding a dynamic gang-war in Arkham city probably would’ve been a nightmare, though. Still, it struck me as odd that when Two-Face & Penguin’s men are there side by side, they’ll call each other names but not really do anything. But when Batman shows up, everyone is all “It’s the Bat!” and with a startling amount of confidence which lacks any justification they all put aside their differences and try to jump you. You’d think that after awhile, “It’s the Bat!” should be a cue to drop what you’re doing and run like hell; this is never the case. While there are a lot of things the game recreates from Batman comics, chasing down scared thugs running for their lives is not one of them.

-Did I mention that the boss fights were better than in Arkham Asylum? Because, man, those were some awesome boss fights.

-M. Night Shyamalan would be jealous of the twist Joker cooked up.

-That was one hell of a powerful ending.

-Watching the credits all the way through should give you an achievement unlock.

-Mark Hamill, you are one hell of a creepy dude, and you are the definitive Joker.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Not Exactly a Review, But…

While I may have been content to wait for Hobbit 3: The Manhattan Project to come out on DVD so I can watch characters with the same names as those from a book I read once spend 3 hours flailing about trying to kill a dragon, my Dad, bless his heart, wanted to see it in theatres, and who am I to turn down a christmas gift movie, especially one that my girlfriend is excited to see (she loves the Jackson LotRs movies even more than I love the source material)? Well, we show up to find that it has been sold out.* Our fallback plan was to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, which my dad had on bluray from Netflix.

I’ll start this off by pointing out that I’m more of a DC person, and beyond a few fairly run of the mill Marvel series and events, I don’t know jack about the Marvel Universe. But never again will I say “DC is better than Marvel at Cosmic Crisis stories”, because Guardians of the Galaxy did a fine job of it, even if it was in a very ‘by the book’ sort of way. Alien bounty hunters & pirate lord? Check. Escape from a maximum security space prison? Check. Strange Kowloon-walled-city-esque outlaw collective in space? Check. Guardians of the Galaxy was probably one of the most troperiffic movies I’ve seen in awhile, but it was still good fun. Miles above the bloated and writhing pomp and self importance of Man of Steel (again, if Chris Nolan can’t make a good Superman movie, no one can).

My girlfriend pointed out that if it weren’t for the somewhat excessive swearing, it easily could’ve made for a great family movie. Then again, these days, swearing may not be a thing? Just the other day, I saw a lady say motherfucker in front of her kid 4 times, and only one of those times was in context of “I’m gonna slap you in your motherfucking mouth if you don’t be quiet.” I know that you want people to take your movie with a pissed off raccoon man and his tree friend (time to start a tally of how many ultramax space prisons Vin Diesel breaks out of) seriously, so sure, keep them swears a comin’ I guess.

Again, it’s a part of the Marvel-verse I’m only cursorily familiar with. The nerd in me lit up like a pin-ball machine when they mentioned the infinity stone thingies. “Orite! Thanos is always looking for the Infinity Stones to destroy the universe or something! I remember now!” Indeed, my only real exposure was that a friend of mine lent me the Infinity Gauntlet back in highschool. Thanos may be a poor man’s Darkseid (blue lady and green lady even kind of strike me being knockoffs of Darkseid’s furies), but he at least got to be in a decent live action movie before Jack Kirby’s ultimate dark god villain.

On something of a tangent, I remember once that someone checking me out at walmart asked if I thought that Dark Knight Rises or the Avengers was the better movie. It was a difficult question to be asked in a checkout line, because the real answer may have been too complex and nuanced for appropriate store-checkout-line small talk. Ultimately, I said “They’re both good, but they’re very different movies.” All of the Marvel-movie-verse movies are super-hero movies, through and through. Big action, larger than life heroes, all in the name of fun and entertainment. There’s some thought-provoking to be done on the side, but for the most part, they don’t attempt to directly address some serious fundamental societal issues in ways that make people uncomfortable. The Batman movies that Nolan made were very much cerebral crime thrillers (particularly the second two) which happened to feature a costumed crime fighter. They did not feel like superhero movies, however. Maybe it’s that lack of truly triumphant moment in which the day is saved (for the day is never truly saved in Gotham, just as the day is never truly saved in real life; for every criminal, terrorist, corrupt politician, corrupt judiciary, corrupt law enforcer or man-caused disaster dealt with, there will always be more to come). They made you think, though, even if they didn’t necessarily make you smile. Batman is probably one of the only top tier superheroes that such an experience could be truly rewarding for fans.** Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I hated Man of Steel? A Superman movie NEEDS to be a Superhero movie, full of tropes that make us laugh and cheer for the heroes who will save the world.

I really wish that Superman Vs. Batman wasn’t the next major DC movie on the slate, because DC REALLY needs a movie that is as FUN as Guardians of the Galaxy, and I’m pretty certain that Supes Vs. Bats is gonna be all “Crime-fighting & responsible use of force is serious business, guys.”

*: No idea at this point just when I’ll get around to seeing it.

**: It’s worth noting that in many ways, the live action Tim Burton Batman movies felt far more cartoony than the cartoon series and features that followed in their wake. A lot of the 1st season villain debuts in TAS were DaF. I think this is why it so greatly benefited the Arkham Asylum games to have a good portion of the voice cast from the Animated Series. I very belatedly had the opportunity to crack open Arkham City, so I’ll probably have some thoughts on that before too long. Yeah, yeah, I’m WAY behind the times…

As a DC Fan, I hadn’t really paid much attention

but while DC fans are writhing in disgust and disappointment with Dan Didio’s oversexed reign of terrible, apparently Marvel fans are dealing with their own woes.  This is an interesting article on how Marvel has been actively torpedoing X-Men and X-Men fans because of the licensing debacle created by their 90s bankruptcy era dealings with Fox and Sony.  

Sometimes it’s nice to know that the grass is not really greener on the other side. (waves to Marvel fans).

The Manga Bust of the Late 00’s May Be Ending, but is that a Good Thing?

The manga market seems to have recovered from the big Manga Crash that occurred along with the rest of the financial crises of 2007, but were the right lessons learned, and how will this affect mainstream comics, both eastern and western, that are released in the US?

The early through mid oughts were a golden age for people reading manga.  Titles were plentiful, relatively cheap, and highly varied.  No longer published as niche titles, released only in comic stores, or in ‘alien’ formats, such as the Darkhorse publications that would reformat a title to fit their standard western style comic issue-by-issue release, Manga had found its place in the mainstream on bookshelves of American Bookstores everywhere.  Around 2007, however, the manga business found itself hit hard by the financial crisis that led to the closure of publishers, cancellations of several titles, and an overall restructuring within the industry as survivors scrambled for licenses and shelf-space.

A number of things led up the crash.  The 00s were, despite what you may have been told, a time of extreme prosperity, freewheelin’, and luxury goods.  One of those luxury goods was manga, which publishers found to be quite the hot commodity.  Flagship Action and Shojo titles proved to be big money-makers, and with anime being shown regularly for the first time on US TV as anything other than an odd novelty, interest and demand for titles were growing faster than publishers could keep up with.  Scanlations and fansubs, despite their critics within the industry on both sides of the ocean, provided publishers with something that any media business would kill for: insight into proven hits with large pre-existing fanbases who were just waiting for the product to spend their money on.  Titles would have buzz long before their US release that publishers could capitalize on if they were quick enough and made the right marketing and merchandizing moves.  The problem began when the publishers started stretching themselves thin, however.  While early in the days of the boom, a new title would likely be a smash hit simply because there were only a handful of other competing titles, the mid 00s saw a glut of new titles, primarily shojo, slice of life, and cheesecake.  While the shelves in bookstores were becoming oversaturated with new titles, America was starting to slow its spending as the overall crash began.  Publishers found themselves out of a lot of money spent on 2nd and 3rd tier titles that weren’t selling.  While they might not have been out as much as if an expensive to license flagship title went bust, the quantity of titles that had been more or less tossed out into the market to meet what publishers thought was unquenchable demand were producing red ink that they simply couldn’t cope with.

In an attempt to stop the bleeding, some publishers cancelled titles that weren’t selling as well.  Unfortunately, this exacerbated the problem: readers were upset at having titles cancelled that they’d invested lots of money in only to find that they’d never be continued.  If there was a chance that a title might be cancelled before it finished its run, why spend the money in the first place?  And as readers were less willing to invest in physical titles, some turned to the internet to read their favorites or they quit altogether.  Neither of these were good for US manga publishing industry.  Sales slumped, several publishers closed their doors forever, and the manga sections in stores were drastically reduced to carrying only the ongoing flagship titles that had proved to be consistent sellers.  The tanking of the US economy and its failure to recover caused the market to drastically shift.  The demographic of who has disposable money is vastly different from what it was 10 years ago.  Publishers had to come up with a new strategy to pick up sales. The choice that they made is a fascinating one, especially considering what US comics have done in the struggling market.

The solution that the US manga publishing industry chose was pornography.  And that choice, one could argue, validates the strategy which Dan DiDio chose for DC comics with the New 52.

Sexually explicit material has always existed in comics and art to the point that one can say that it has always been endemic.  But the ratio of titles pushed in the mainstream and on the shelves of bookstores paints a different picture of manga as a hobby and as a medium from what was around 10 years ago.  During the height of the manga boom, the most sexually explicit titles one found were those by Ken Akamatsu (Love Hina) or Masamune Shiro (Ghost in the Shell).  I know there were several other titles with sexual themes or overtones, or titles that were not overtly sexual or written for the sole purpose of titillation that contained nudity or sexual content, but by and large, the titles tended towards your typical flagship action story, shojo romance, love comedy or slice of life titles where, if there was anything sexual, it was not focused on as a primary selling point.

Today, however, with the exception of those old flagship titles, which have been ongoing since the beginning of the boom, throughout the bust, and on into this new era, titles that focus on sex, sexualization, and titillation seem to have blossomed and overtaken the manga section.  One cannot pass by a manga section today without seeing a multitude of covers featuring partial to near-total female nudity.  Titles that would’ve been shrink wrapped just a few years ago, featuring not only nudity, but graphic, sometimes violent, sex, often depicting minors, are prominently displayed on endcaps or on shelves, covers facing out, baring the laughable “Older Teen” rating.  In efforts to win the “not just for kids!” argument, manga publishers in collusion with retailers have made the manga section of their stores (usually an adjunct to the Young Adults section) not only inappropriate for children but possibly very dangerous.  Now, I know that there’s the argument of parental responsibility “hurr hurr, y r ur kids unsuprvized?”, but there’s a difference between standing behind your kid while they pick out the newest volume of the manga that their saturday morning cartoon is based on in a section where the worst one might see is the occasional cover with someone with overly large breasts that can be pointed to and laughed at as absurd to having your child in a section where you are surround by multiple and varied images of screaming and/or crying half-naked women, sometimes being groped on.

And now, I will dig into western comics for a bit.  Western Comics faced some harsh competition during the manga boom when potential comic readers were buying manga instead of western comics, and multiple foreign titles were suddenly getting shelf-space in bookstores that had been long lost to American comics.  The format was a big part of this; retailers like trades, and a lot of consumers do too.  Another thing that hurt western comics was the perceived (and real) impenetrability of their titles.  With manga, readers knew that if they picked up volume 1 of a title, chances were, they were at the beginning and could read a single unified story from beginning to end.  How often is that the case with western comics?  Another thing that western comics had to compete with from Manga was image; despite the steps taken in the 80s and 90s, western comics did not seem as grown up in a market where manga titles existed.  Part of ‘growing up’ for comics had been including more adult themes and topics, implied sex, scantily clad women, etc., all things that had been unacceptable under the old Code.  In some places, the pencilers take this to stupid extremes: particularly of note, 90s Catwoman is penciled as though she were butt naked and then inked purple from neck to toe, rendering her design rather absurd and unflattering.  So, when up against manga, western comics were jealous that their end of the medium had to compete against titles that could sell sex and sexuality up front and could contain graphic nudity and sex.  Whether it was well handled or simple exploitative pandering, they didn’t care.  They just wanted a piece of it.  So now, we have a western comics market that tried to catch up with the old boom era manga by pushing the titillation and pandering up to 11, though still unable to take that last step into full on graphic sex and nudity.  Meanwhile, the manga industry took the next step and just went for more porn.

Only time will tell if these industries made the correct choices businesswise.  The lessons learned from the bust seem odd indeed, especially since many of the titles that contributed to the glut prior to the bust were cheap-to-license cheesecake titles, though I’d imagine that hurt the anime industry more than the manga industry due to the increased overhead (which partially explains why there was a huge post-recession boom in super-saver packs containing entire series for less than the cost of 1 pre-bust dvd).  I don’t know how much criticism there has been of the manga publishing industry post-bust, but the overall response to New 52 has ranged from “Why?” to “Gross…”.  The loudest complaints are from those who loved the DCAU and/or who have kids that they wish they could introduce to the heroes they love, but are incredibly wary of taking them into a comic store based on their knowledge of what’s been going on in the industry at large.  Things must be working for the manga industry, though, since they’ve reclaimed much of the shelf-space that was lost between 2007-2009, but you’ll never see the throngs of young teens sitting in the aisles, reading their favorite titles.

Important note: I’m also not suggesting that the older manga titles were appropriate either.  A lot of them really are/were not.  Some of those Flagship titles I referred to ALSO put sex at the forefront and are still ongoing today, so I’m not making a case that those titles that carried the industry through its rough period were non-sexual or kids-appropriate.  I’m merely pointing out that the overall trend in titles carried seems to have shifted from titles that may (or may not) have included sex to titles where sex is at the forefront, front and center and in the face of anyone walking by.  I had initially considered working this into a much lengthier post about why I no longer read manga or watch anime period, but that’s a vastly different and deeply personal topic that would be better explored on its own.