Why I Stopped Reading Marvel and DC

Comic book movies may be big business, but sales of the books have dropped. There have been many different explanations for the drop, including a now-infamous statement from the VP of Sales blaming diversity. But no one seems to know the real reason for the slump.

I’m not business savvy enough or sufficiently knowledgeable about the market to point to the reason for the plummeting sales, but I do know what’s driven me away from the big two of Marvel and DC. Here’s what moved me off the treadmill…and it has nothing to do with diversity.

The Characters Became Really, Really Unlikable

For quite a while now, both Marvel and DC seem to have labored under the misconception that the only way to make a flawed character is to make that character a jerkass. From the mid-2000s on, company crossovers featured either could have been avoided if the heroes weren’t dicks.

Marvel’s Civil War is probably the poster child for this event, but I think the problem predates that crossover. It at least goes back as far as House of M, which opened with a group of heroes debating the pros and cons of murdering the Scarlet Witch.

House of M

Our…heroes?

In DC, the return of Hal Jordan, one of my favorite characters, had me jazzed to read Green Lantern again. But before the Green Lantern: Rebirth miniseries was even over, it became apparent that Hal was coming back as an asshole.

There’s this part in Rebirth where Hal is leading a bunch of Green Lanterns against a powerful entity that feeds on fear. When Batman points out that maybe the guy who literally unmade reality once isn’t to be blindly trusted, Hal provided the nuanced counterargument of punching Bats in the jaw.

Hal Punches Batman

To be fair to Hal, this was his strategy in Debate Club, and nobody ever wanted to debate him.

Now I like seeing Batman get beaten down and all, but the Caped Crusader had a good point. And the punch was presented as a, “Yeah – Hal’s back!” moment, not as something only a dickhead would do.

As the rebooted Green Lantern series went on, Hal literally punched somebody at least once a story arc. And when he wasn’t doing the superhero equivalent of pissing to mark his territory, he was having internal monologue moments like this:

Hal and Supergirl

See, it’s funny because he has to make a conscious effort not to commit statutory rape.

To be fair, I love Hal Jordan as a character because he’s such a dumbass. But for some reason, his macho bullshit became something people were supposed to admire. Instead of being a dummy who had a good heart, the defining parts of his character became his right fist and his penis.

Over the years, Marvel and DC seemed to fall under the misconception that heroes should be jerks. Character flaws were no longer something a hero struggled with and ultimately overcame. Instead, they became a character’s defining feature, ultimate drowning out other elements that made the hero likable.

The Heroes Stopped Evolving

Comics have always been a bit uneven in terms of character development, since the extended serial format requires a certain degree of consistency. However, for about 40 years, many popular superheroes actually had some interesting long-term development. Sometimes it was two steps forward, one step back, but the heroes kept evolving.

Look at Spider-Man. He started out as a high school kid who sort of fell backwards into superheroism. By the end of Stan Lee’s time as writer, he moved on to college and became an adult. In the 80s, he got married. For a little while, he was even a parent-to-be.

Clone Saga

But the less said about that particular period, the better.

Spider-Man’s theme of power and responsibility remained constant, but his responsibilities changed. At the same time, he never changed so much as to become unreliable. If you started reading in the 1960s and then came back in the 1980s, you still saw the same guy – but now he, like you, was older and wiser.

Virtually all Marvel characters had this sort of progression. Wolverine gradually learned to control his animal instincts. Bruce Banner learned that the Hulk was more than just a curse. Captain America adapted to modern times, became disillusioned with American politics, and eventually got back into the fight.

DC characters didn’t have as much across the board development, but they did grow. Batman went from being a loner to a surrogate parent in a crime-fighting family. Superman and Lois Lane got married. Not all of these stories were winners, but they usually explored new and interesting territory.

Superman Lois Lane Wedding

Too bad Barry Allen ran really fast and destroyed this moment in history.

While retcons came and went, the 2000s seemed to really shut down most of these developments, reverting the characters to their “iconic” states. And by “iconic,” I mean the state that the creative team working on them liked the best.

Spider-Man sold his marriage to the Devil. The Hulk’s status quo became an even bigger mess than it usually was. Over in DC, the universal reset button meant that nothing ever remained consistent. Just as you got comfortable with one version of Superman, a reboot meant he was a totally different character again.

The Price Got Too High

Despite what I consider to be a poor editorial direction, Marvel and DC still have a lot of great writers and artists on board. Whatever misgivings I have, I would probably still be reading their comics if I could afford them.

Typical comics from the Big Two these days often run $3.99 or $4.99 an issue. Considering that modern comics often have a lower ratio of story per issue than in the past (due to splash pages, etc.), that’s a lot of money for something I’ll read in 20 minutes.

I do most of my comics reading through the Comixology app, so I sometimes nab a Marvel or DC comic if there’s a sale. However, when the price is $4.99 for something I have many misgivings about versus $1.99 for a Dynamite or IDW comic that’s probably of higher quality, the choice is easy.

The Door Isn’t Totally Closed

None of this is to say that I’ve sworn off Marvel and DC forever. I dislike their overall direction, but many individual books are pretty good. I didn’t make a conscious choice not to buy their modern comics – my buying habits just changed in reaction to their overall direction.

I’m also not saying the industry as a whole has gone down the tubes. A lot of smaller press stuff is great. Dynamite has been churning out sword and sorcery books like Red Sonja, IDW has produced high-quality licensed works like Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Image has groundbreaking stories like Bitch Planet.

All of the titles I mentioned above have likeable heroes, well-paced stories, and top-notch art and writing. Most of them are cheaper than Marvel and DC books, and many of them allow me to download the comic as a PDF when I buy it from Comixology (which is a minor perk, but one I enjoy).

I stopped buying Marvel and DC for much the same reason that I stopped buying Dungeons & Dragons products when 4th edition came out – the company changed direction away from what I liked, and smaller presses put out amazing work. But if the Big Two think that bringing back old characters or killing off more superheroes in the next big event will lure folks like me back, then they’d better not hold their breath.

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