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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is it Time to End the “Event” Story Model In Comic Books?

Back in the mid-1980s the Marvel and DC came up with the “Event”, an annual cross-over storyline that ran through all the titles they published. In the past Events such as Secret Wars, Crisis of Infinite Earths, Legends, Acts of Vengeance, and Atlantis Attacks, helped new readers discover obscure characters an expanded universe of characters. And these “Events” allowed publishers to maximize their profits when those new readers discovered slower selling second and third tier titles.

The Event model was designed to take advantage of the reader’s compulsion to see a story to a conclusion. The hope was that on reading the part of the event in the more popular title, readers would be compelled to buy one of the slower selling second or third tier titles to continue reading the storyline. And that after reading those two or three issues that were part of the event, the reader would start buying that slower selling title regularly. Oftentimes this business model was a tremendous success with sales of a slower selling second or third tier title having a sales bump during the term of the “event”.

And in the past what happened in the “event” stayed in the “event titles.” This allowed for the storyline to be a built in entry point for new readers. Any aftermath was usually resolved in a few issues of a characters ongoing series title, and creators went back to telling their stories and creators eventually finished their series runs telling their stories and leaving characters and their supporting casts intact so the next creator could pick up where they left off.

Unfortunately, over the last 25 years the “Event” has gone from a tool to help promote sell slower B and C list selling titles to a way for publishers to stay afloat in a declining marketplace. For some publishers like DC comics it has been a crutch used to continue publishing all their titles throughout the year. Instead of most titles returning to regular runs and writers and artists resuming their storylines, nowadays events pretty much dominate all the titles throughout the entire year. In some cases these events now run through a minimum of 100 issues throughout a calendar year.

While this business model was tremendously successful 25-30 years ago, it has stalled both companies creatively and from a business standpoint today. Today the Event storyline has mushroomed from a short-term marketing tool used to help new readers try slower selling B and C list titles and discover an expanded universe of obscure characters to something so complicated that it’s made comics virtually inaccessible to a new reader. With readers having to buy a minimum of 100 issues to read one part of a storyline, it’s become virtually impossible for a new reader to start trying new titles or even access the titles of popular ones.

Today the “event” has stifled all the creativity at the big two comic publishers. Because writers and artists are constantly being forced to write to editorial mandated events throughout the year, there’s no opportunity for creative teams to tell their stories about individual characters. Because their hands are tied by editorial mandates, they don’t get a chance to establish a “voice” for a character or define their style of storytelling.

Thanks to the event storytelling model it’s next to impossible for a new reader to discover an individual character. New readers like kids who like characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Captain America have a hard time discovering a character, their supporting casts and their rogues galleries due to the fact that these characters wind up getting tied up in long-running events that go on for year or segue into each other for years.

Every issue of a comic book needs to be an entry point for a new reader. And it’s hard to create entry points for new readers to access a character with what the event model of storytelling has evolved into. The irony is that Marvel and DC are so busy catering to the shrinking audience of older diehard fans with these long-running event storylines that they have neglected the new reader, the person who the event storyline was originally intended for.

It’s clear that the “Event” model of storytelling is obsolete. Even many veteran readers are frustrated with how slow, complicated and downright confusing these Events have become today. What was once a strong marketing tool has become a crutch for mediocre writers and subpar artists to hobble from one long dragged out storyline to the next. Comics are supposed to be easy to read and easier to follow. When a story drags on for 100 to 300 issues in over 50-100 titles there’s something wrong with the way comic books are being published.

Comics need to get back to basic storytelling if publishers like Marvel and DC hope to reach the audience of 20 million new readers. A publisher needs readers to discover characters if they hope to sell comics to younger demographics. it’s next to impossible to discover what’s great about a character in an event these days. So many characters are being thrown at the reader in these long epic sagas that it’s hard for anyone to stand out in a crowd.

New readers also need to discover stories. Each character like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk used their own distinct, story model. And new readers often discovered a character in a basic story like Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin, Batman Vs. The Joker, or Superman Vs. Lex Luthor. But due to all the events writers and artists get their hands tied and they aren’t able to tell a basic Superman story or a Batman story in a Superman or a Batman comic. Instead of these characters becoming significant individuals ironically they wind up becoming insignificant as they’re made into smaller parts of an expanded universe in a larger storyline.

The event model is keeping new readers from discovering comics. Today new customers wind up overwhelmed by the sheer number of comic books they have to buy just to get into the hobby. At $3.99 for a single issue of a comic book a 100-300 issue storyline now costs nearly $400-$1200 to complete. For a person under the age of 40, that’s equal to the price of an iPhone, an LED TV, or a laptop. Or a year’s worth of internet access. Compare this to the price of an event 20-25 years ago when buying all the issues barely cost $50-$100, and it’s clear that the entertainment value per dollar of a comic book has clearly declined.

DC and Marvel have a great catalog of characters. However, it’s time for both companies to abandon the “Event” model of storytelling and go back to letting characters be individuals again in their own individual series. Creators really need an opportunity to tell stories that are relatable to readers today. And they can’t gain the momentum to build up on a run because just as a series is starting to build up to the rising action in a story they’re constantly being interrupted by an editorial mandated event.

New readers need more comics with easy to access stories such as Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy, Captain America: The Captain, Iron Man: Armor Wars, Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying, Fantastic Four: The Trial of Galactus and Flash: The Return of Barry Allen. It’s these kinds of comics that have readers headed for the back issue and trade paperback section of the comic shop and searching Wikipedia and eBay for more material. And with that expanded interest in a character’s history and supporting cast comes a compulsion to buy other titles in a expanded universe and eventually more sales for a publisher long-term.

Marvel, DC and any comic publisher today has to understand it’s the creative runs in single issues of a characters’ series that help new readers discover what’s great about a character, and it’s the storylines they create in an individual characters’ series that make them fan favorites. Kids are looking for comics featuring Superman, Batman, The Hulk and Spider-Man, not Identity Crisis, Age of Ultron, Infinity, Forever Evil, Future’s End or books featuring whatever Saga of the year is playing.