How the Collapse of American Comics Signals the End of Modern Media

A disclaimer: I have never been more than a casual fan of the American comic book scene. 

There was a time when that was fine. In fact, the world was full of casual comic book fans. Plenty of people picked up the occasional Superman, Batman or Spiderman comic and followed the adventures of the pulp picturebook hero of their choice. But only in passing. It was like tuning in to your favorite sitcom a couple of times a month. You didn’t really need to pay a lot of attention to it when you weren’t thinking about it but you knew you’d at least somewhat enjoy what you got when you did tune in. 

All of that has changed, and started changing in the 90s as “event” books took over the industry. A recap of the events, market forces and broader trends that led to the incredible insularity of modern comics is not the purpose of this essay. I’ve been a disinterested observer of the phenomenon and really, it’s been documented better by others. If you want a really broad, high level overview of this topic I’d suggest this pretty straightforward video: 

How Distribution has Saved and is Now Killing Comics 

Since I’m not really a business person my interest in the business side of all this comes from the ways it has warped the relation between artist and audience. Yes, this is one of my personal bugaboos. That’s largely because this aspect of storytelling is one of the least discussed in modern culture and our overlooking it has deeply, deeply damaged modern storytelling. I think comics is the perfect case study for this because it takes the flaws of modern media and really paints them in stark relief. 

Last week I talked about how I think changes in the feedback loop between artist and audience exacerbated the natural dislike many authors have for archetypes to the point where relations between them and their audience have been materially harmed. The spiral continues to grow out of control with no signs of stopping any time soon. The natural response to this is to assume that if we can insulate creator from consumer to some extent we can create a healthier story landscape. 

This is an understandable conclusion to reach. 

It is also wrong. 

If you’re familiar with the comics industry, even to the very limited extent you’ll be if you watch the video linked above, you know that nothing is more insulated from feedback than American comics. Comic books pass through the hands of two other entities before arriving in the hands of readers. Once they pass through Diamond Distributers and the local comic shop (LCS in industry lingo) the final sales figures are so far removed from what’s actually purchased by readers that they’re useless as feedback. The editorial staff is small and so busy with coordinating and creating storylines they don’t have much time to engage directly with customers. 

That leaves the writers and artists themselves. These are almost always people who have spent their entire careers writing or drawing. They’re good at their skill set but that skill set doesn’t include working with the public and, of course, we’ve already discussed why I think relations are deteriorating between this group and the audience. 

The result is an industry that essentially gives no weight to audience feedback at all. 

This industry is also in total freefall. In 2020 the entire sales numbers for the American comic book industry fell below that of Koyoharu Gotouge’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. Comic lines like Super Sons, which were fun and new, and widely loved by general audiences, were cancelled arbitrarily to make room for a new creative team. Long running characters are constantly pulled from publication to make room for half-baked replacements. Interesting storylines have vanished and become tedious, repetitive lectures on the evils of society. All attempts to protest the systemic destruction of entertainment are met with ridicule. This goes beyond simple contempt for the audience. 

Insulating the creators from the audience has resulted in nothing less than the wholesale looting and rape of a cultural institution. 

This is disturbing because our cultural creators are growing more and more insulated from audiences. Again, these people have never been that good at staying in touch with their public. But streaming services aggregate everyone into a lump and make it difficult for audiences to express disappointment with a product. The entertainment press model is reliant on handouts and press events from publishers. Failure to give good press to any kind of mainstream entertainment results in the press getting shut out of future events and makes competing with compliant press institutions difficult. Individual commentators who speak out find their social media accounts suspended or banned. At the rate things are going, the rape of comics will play out time and time again over the next decade as one industry after another follows suite. 

There’s not a whole lot individual creators can do to counter this trend. All we can do is keep the basic lesson in mind: Feedback from the audience can sting. But if you cut it off entirely your art is fatally wounded. 

Why Critics and Writers Hate Archetypes 

A disclaimer before we dive in: This is not a universal law. Many critics and writers love archetypes, use or analyze them effectively and appreciate how they enrich stories. But a majority of them – not necessarily a large one but a majority nonetheless – seem to despise them. 

To oversimplify things, I believe this is because they see them as some kind of shackle. The curse of creativity is that it drives creators to try and do everything from scratch over and over again – assuming, of course, that creativity is your driving force. And I believe that many writers today are driven by creativity, not a desire to entertain or tell a story. The upshot of this is that writers seem to feel a need to not just ignore but actively reject all things that point to any aspect of the story than that which they desire. 

I keep coming back to this notion but it’s important. A storyteller is trying to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of their audience without the audience noticing them doing it. It’s something like a magic trick. Everyone knows a trick is being played but no one cares because the wonder and mystery is the whole reason you’re there in the first place. In this analogy, archetypes are like the documentaries that explain how magicians do their tricks. Once a magician’s trick is revealed it doesn’t have the same impact. 

Or so it appears at first glance. In truth, a well-executed archetype is more like a well-executed sports play or well told joke. Well versed audiences can appreciate the execution even if it isn’t quite as mysterious as it would appear to someone seeing the archetype for their first time. However many writers seem to feel a need to distance themselves from the archetypes instead. Rather than demonstrate their skills by executing on an archetype, they instead seek to subvert it. They will cut against it, diverting its natural story beats into other paths. 

Now there’s nothing wrong with subversion per se. However, in the modern age so many writers are subverting archetypes that this kind of behavior has become predictable. Worse, it hasn’t even moved into the realm of archetype itself, but rather remains a very shallow, surface level way to engage with archetypes. Heroes prove to be actually cowardly or performative. Thieves turn out to be motivated entirely by circumstance. Villains are just the heroes of their own stories. None of these subversions is ever explored with the depth or breadth of their counterparts because the point isn’t the exploration, it’s the subversion itself. Archetypes can become a crutch in the hands of a lazy writer but subversion in the modern era is just as bad. In some ways it’s worse. After all, in order to subvert an archetype you are still reliant on the archetype existing. The slow subversion of all archetypes has driven them out of the public consciousness to the point where they no longer exists to support the story. This would be fine if these stories had any other point than the subversion but for the most part they don’t. That leaves us with an empty shell of a storytelling landscape we really need to move past. 

Yet writers still languish in it. 

Critics are on the opposite end of this spectrum, they desire to understand what a storyteller has put forward. They are interested in the nuts and bolts of a story, with execution for its own sake, and typically evaluate archetypes through one of two lenses. First, as a layer of metatextual information the author shouldn’t be constrained by. Second, as something the author must outwit. Both attitudes seem to find their origin in the same place as the writer’s disdain for archetypes – the creator must be free to create, and archetypes are a constraint they must overcome in order to accomplish this. 

Like the writer, the critic is looking at the archetype as something that cripples the potential of a story. I’ve always found this perspective strange. But over the last five years or so I’ve slowly formed a theory as to why I think that it’s so common. 

I’ve spend more than two decades of my life doing theater in various forms and one thing I’ve learned from that experience is the importance of being in tune with your audience. If the audience laughs, you have to wait for them. Otherwise you will train them not to laugh when you make a joke. If the theater gets loud for some reason, you have to adapt to that. I once had to crank up the volume of a line with important exposition in it because a child in the audience started crying. As soon as their parents got them out of the room I had to reduce back to normal, so as not to break the illusion. And so on and so forth. This ongoing dialog between performer and audience is a vital part of delivering a good story. 

This dialog exists at a very abstract level in mediums where the audience and entertainer aren’t in direct contact. As media has expanded in scope and immediacy, and it’s gotten easier and easier for authors (or, in the case of movies and music, musicians and actors) to get more and broader feedback from their audience, to the point where it’s almost on the same level that a live performer gets from a live audience. With one exception. 

Even the largest venues accommodate only a few tens of thousands of audience at any one time. The Internet allows for an audience of billions. That’s far more feedback than anyone is really equipped to handle, delivered in a way that is both more immediate and more impersonal than comes during a live performance. I think that’s somehow poisoned the healthy feedback loop that exists in a good audience-performer dynamic. The unfiltered exposure to an artist’s personal life on social media certainly hasn’t helped. The forces at play in that situation are interesting but not really the point of this discussion. I’m more interested in the way all this mass exposure galvanizes creators against their audiences. 

This isn’t unique to traditional forms of entertainment or expression. YouTube and Twitch have created whole new mediums with their own massive celebrities and success stories, many of which have suffered incredibly damaging fallouts with their own audiences. The Spoony One, DarkSydePhil and Wings of Redemption are all cases of this that long time netizens are familiar with. By the same token, traditional forms of art and entertainment have produced many individuals that seem downright hostile to their own audiences. A list of comic book writers working at Marvel or DC in 2020 would be a great set of examples for that. 

And yet in mainstream entertainment, and Hollywood in particular, this kind of hostility seems particularly strong. You might say the writers and directors there hold their mainstream audiences… in contempt. And that brings me to my thesis this week. 

I think the modern rejection of archetypes is a rebellion against audience feedback. Audiences do not ingest stories in the way writers or critics do. They do not look at them in a vacuum and try and nuance out all the little details and dynamics the author was trying for, they add them to the vast library of existing culture already in their brains and see where they stack up. And, to stretch the analogy a little further, archetypes are how they catalog these stories. When audiences offer feedback on stories they often couch it in terms of these archetypes and the ways they didn’t get the aspects of the story they expected and desired. 

Now, it’s true that you can replace one aspect of a story with another and get an equally good and enjoyable story. The thing is, when that’s done successfully, audiences still tend to appreciate that. Look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for example. That story subverted the whole dynamic of a typical horror story but still stands as a classic, beloved by critics and casual horror fans alike. But, as I’ve already said, I don’t think that’s what is happening right now. Now, we have stories subverting archetypes not out of a desire to tell a different story, but out of a desire to break free from the audience. 

Again, I think writers – and to a lesser extent critics – dislike archetypes because they see them as a kind of shackle. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, just the one they make. As a result of the sudden deluge of audience feedback writers have experienced since the dawn of the Internet, authors have become more and more hostile to the feedback they receive. And the fact that said feedback often comes couched in terms of archetypes – which are primarily created by audiences to help them process stories – makes the natural hostility of the modern writer towards archetypes increase. The further the writer strays from normal archetypes with no clear direction in mind, the more he gets feedback on it. And the loop continues forever. 

The unfortunate reality underpinning this loop is simple. Entertainers cannot entertain without an audience. A creation that no one but the creator sees is not art, it is practice at best and indulgence at worst. The audience is a vital part of storytelling and artistic creation. But these are collaborative acts and as long as there is antagonism – whether born out of contempt or some other emotion – between the creator and audience then the arts will degrade, not grow. Perhaps our methods of feedback are inherently flawed. Perhaps both audience and artist need to seek a new way to reach this synthesis. But until both sides are willing to actually engage in a discussion with good will that’s going to be impossible. 

And to get there, I think hatred for archetypes is one thing that has to go. 

The Rorschach Test

Steve Ditko was an Objectivist. 

For those not familiar with the philosophy here it is in broad strokes: It was articulated in its modern form by Ayn Rand and views good and evil as absolute goals. Everyone is striving for one or the other with no shades of gray in between. It’s an atheistic philosophy and one that relies on men to have clear minds and clear goals, measuring their decisions against morality and their own goals to reach definitively good or evil ends. While people can (and do) act in confused or ignorant fashion in an objectivist world, their deeds can still be weighed as good or evil. 

Objectivism is an appealing philosophy in many ways. It has strong moral principles, it places the power to make meaningful decisions in the hands of those who espouse it and it’s not so overly complex it breaks down on contact with reality, which is a common flaw in philosophical systems. If I were to site one flaw, it’s the philosophy’s dependence on men to parse good and evil. 

In my experience, humans are terrible at that kind of thing. 

Ditko, like Rand before him, had a lot of faith in the human ability to make moral decisions without reference to any higher level of morality. Again, that gives rise to a degree of nobility. Objectivism places a lot of value on individual autonomy and personal freedom as important parts of the moral order. This resonates strongly with most people raised in the Western tradition. Ditko tried to embody these values in The Question, a character he created and wrote in the 60s and 70s, who’s name (if not his principles) have gone on to live in the lore of DC comics. While the roots of The Question are largely forgotten his principles still live on in the character Rorschach, created by Alan Moore for his comic series The Watchmen

That’s fascinating, as Moore considered objectivism an interesting idea in the same way you might consider the morality of a paranoid schizophrenic interesting. 

To reiterate: Alan Moore was not an objectivist. He does not think good or evil are real concepts, much less pure concepts that could not be mixed. He wrote Rorschach as a bit of a madman. And yet many true Objectivists look at Rorschach and see a hero who fought for their ideals with courage and conviction. There are two reasons for this. 

The first is that Moore found Objectivism in general, and the Question in particular, interesting. He disagreed with the ideas, but he did not hold them in contempt. 

And as a result, we arrive at the second reason – he gave a true portrayal of Objectivism. Rather than dismissing it or worse, oversimplifying it to belittle the point of view, Moore allowed Rorschach to give a full throated voice to the ideas of Objectivism, to the point where many adherents of the ideology became quite fond of him. This wasn’t Moore’s intention. He thought he was making a strong case against the philosophy in his work. But he was so honest about what he was speaking to that he captured it regardless. 

Moore isn’t the only one to do this. The movies Starship Troopers and Robocop were both trying to mock scifi action movies but they turned out to be such good scifi action films that audiences loved them. At the same time, Starship Troopers, the novel, was written by Heinline, a hardcore libertarian who was trying to depict a society to show the importance of getting people to buy into their own society, and how hard that would truly be. On the other hand, the writer and director thought they were mocking Heinline as a fascist. However, they were such excellent artists that the truth Heinline was trying to depict – ‘service guarantees citizenship’ – still shines through and is embraced by many. 

It is obvious, then, that great artists must include truth in their work and that truth will then resonate with the audience. It is this resonance that, in turn, reinforces the integrity of the artistic work. That’s especially the case when the audience resonates in a way the artist did not expect. 

That’s also one of the reasons many artists resist this kind of truth. The job of a writer is to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of the audience to a predetermined ending point so when things go radically off script it’s something of a failure for you, the writer. There’s a strong temptation to discard nuanced and realistic portrayals of viewpoints or ideas writers disagree with, so that they can get to that ending. The uncertainty must be controlled. While an outcome like Rorschach may not satisfy the writer, audiences can smell that oversimplification coming and will reject it much more often than accept it. 

If you seek to tell a story with artistic and creative integrity, if you wish to appeal to and entertain an audience and if you believe truth is an important part of storytelling, you cannot always determine how your audience will react. Don’t let that deter you from investing in these things. Ultimately, you serve the audience. Let them react as they will. You focus on your duty to the truth. 

Skin Deep Morality

We’re talking about the horrible toll contempt has taken on art in the last decade or so. There’s no area where there’s a clearer case of that than the way the topic of racism and racial oppression has eaten up such a huge part of every moral discussion in the last ten years. The history of this is pretty long and fraught, and definitely goes back further than 2011. But for the purposes of our talk today it’s not necessary to look back further than a week to see the evidence of this single factor mania everywhere. 

COVID vaccine mandates? Currently being protested as racist by Black Lives Matter for their disparate racial impact. 

Public school systems? Wracked by the critical race theory debate. 

Problems at the border? Either racism against Mexicans or white genocide, depending on your point of view. 

Pick just about any issue to discuss, even strained gender relations (caused, we’re told, by white patriarchy), and someone will insert themselves almost immediately to explain how race points us to the moral failings of the system. It’s tired, it’s boring, it’s repetitive. But it has one thing going in its favor: Americans hold racists in utter contempt. This is a relatively new phenomenon in America, and most of the world for that matter. It’s also the first major moral concept to find its beginnings in the United States. Both of these things are noteworthy in and of themselves, and taken in isolation I would’ve told you, as recently as 2014, that they were positive things. 

The last seven years have convinced me otherwise. 

Which is to say there was a time when I thought contempt for another based on their moral decisions was a worthwhile position. I still find the idea of removing race as an indicator of value worthwhile, but it’s like a shiny new toy that we’ve become overly fascinated with. To discuss this idea in more depth it may be worthwhile to step back and consider it in other terms. Let’s take a relatively nonincendiary example. Say we have a cannibal. 

Wait! Wait! Come back! 

I’m serious, imagine a character like Hannibal Lecter. He’s intelligent, suave, urbane, raised in a culture where we recognize cannibalism is inherently evil as an affront to human dignity, but he chooses to ignore the respect due to others and eat their bodies anyways. Often while they are, in fact, still alive. 

Is this man not worthy of contempt? 

And yet there is an entire body of literature, including Silence of the Lambs where we find Hannibal himself, that tells us such a man is not, in fact, contemptuous. We treat him this way at our own peril. Hannibal escapes from prison and menaces society once again because he is treated with contempt. The characters attempt to use Hannibal, a contemptuous action, and as a result they suffer the full brutality of his twisted nature. Hannibal is evil and we treat evil with contempt at our own peril. When we simply disregard evil rather than confronting it then it will return to the shadows and build itself up more and more. 

The worst part of this is dismissing things with contempt is easy. We know that racism is evil and everyone who displays it is guilty of that evil. So we just dismiss them. But what actually needs to happen is the hard, careful and often fruitless work of reforming that evil through compassion, acceptance and renormalization. Dismissal forwards none of those goals. However, with the availability of such an easy seeming out, people become very tempted to simply plaster this one size fits all ‘solution’ onto everything. 

So we find race seeping into every moral discussion. And anyone who can paint their opposition as racially motivated feels free to dismiss their opposition in contempt.

This is not healthy. 

Solving this problem on the grand scale of American, much less global, society is far outside my abilities and intelligence. So I’m just going to leave the notion there. Let’s look at what the impact on story has been through the lens of a single example. 

Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that explores the legacy of Steve Rogers as Captain America through the views of his two closest living friends. In theory. In practice it’s a sermon on race and power in the United States. Basically every event in the show exists to examine this question in some way or another and it processes everything through the idea of standing hostilities between white people and every other ethnicity on earth. This horribly distorts the story. 

In theory, the MCU is in a state of upheaval as it recovers from the incredible disruption of losing half its population for five years only to have them inexplicably come back. Everyone has problems. Deep problems, complex problems, difficult problems.  Everyone’s problems are incredibly pressing and require immediate attention because no one has anything in place to deal with anything like this. Falcon – Sam Wilson – has just been handed the shield of Captain America and tasked with carrying on the heroic legacy Steve built. Helping with these problems should be his priority one. 

Instead, we get a long introspective introduction where Sam struggles with whether a white nation will accept a black superhero. Even though they’ve been accepting black superheroes for over a decade, since Rhody got a suit of combat armor from his friend Tony. Never mind that, Sam has to reset all that history and become the first one all over again. Then, when terrorists try to usurp the ongoing disaster relief efforts put in place to repair the blip, Falcon spends more time sympathizing with the terrorist ring leader than the people suffering from her actions. Because she’s not white, just like Sam. Because the things that driver her to chaotic violence are things Falcon has also experienced. And ultimately, because Sam finds himself holding the people conducting the relief effort in contempt. 

Deep, complex, difficult problems are washed away in a very shallow moral judgement that makes a mockery of human nature and suffering.  In the end we’re expected to empathize with Sam and join him in his contempt of the world relief efforts. But I found I couldn’t. Not just because I’ve tried very hard to put contempt behind me as destructive only to myself, but because in dismissing all the moral questions in Falcon and the Winter Solider except for race the writers blinded themselves to a host of moral issues that existed in their story and which they did not address. It was easier to dismiss moral questions with contempt for racism than explore them. But the story suffered for it. Suffered a great deal. 

When homeless people were given homes owned by people who vanished where are those people to go when they reappear? When cities were abandoned because there weren’t enough people to keep them going who will help the people who reappeared there, all on their own? When business were closed and their goods given away because the owners vanished who will restore that livelihood to them when they come back? Falcon and Winter Soldier ignores all these questions and the stress, trauma and suffering they will provoke and replaces them with its contempt for racism. 

It’s not fair. It’s not authentic. As a work of art, it fails its duty to truth. 

There is no easy out to moral questions in art. This doesn’t mean that art cannot present us with people who think there are easy outs. This doesn’t mean art has an imperative to confront difficult moral questions, for art can still function without such a requirement. But once you have introduced a moral question in a story you must treat it with honesty and fairness or you will fail in art. That’s hard and uncomfortable and more than once I’ve set aside story elements because I knew I couldn’t deal with them with the kind of honesty the truth deserved. The first lesson from our culture of contempt is simple. 

If a moral decision inspires contempt in an artist, that artist is unqualified to address it in art. Ignorance, hatred and love, all of these approaches can yield valid art on moral questions. But contempt cannot. So I will strive to avoid those issues which inspire it in me, and avoid all art where the two collide as well. Hopefully I’ve made a good case for why others should do so. But we cannot end there. We must go a step further. 

We have to talk about Rorschach. 

But not today, I think. Come back next week and we’ll tackle Alan Moore, The Question, and the legacy of The Watchmen

When Art Turns to Contempt

The fundamental unit of Art is Truth. 

A person can labor to create something but unless it is grounded in something true sharing that creation with another will be difficult if not impossible. The things that are true are the only things we can really share. Art that lacks truth has no shared threads to connect artist and audience and becomes an entirely subjective mess, something to argue about or project oneself onto rather than a vehicle to communicate the deepest concepts of the human experience. 

It’s not impossible to express truth about something that inspires contempt. In fact, contempt is often born from a specific piece of truth that inspires disgust and eventually, yes, contempt in the people who learn it. The problem is that contempt then warps everything we know about a person. Perhaps we learn that someone’s car broke down because they never changed the oil in it. (I am changing the oil in my car every six months, dad, please relax.) Someone who hears this may begin holding this negligent fool in contempt, because obviously they don’t take care of their possessions and who can trust someone like that? 

The problem is, while the negligence is true, there are other truths. A family member was in the hospital and all their time was consumed in caring for them. They were too strapped for cash to afford a visit to the mechanic. Their hospitalized family member was the one who was in charge of scheduling the car maintenance in the first place and they didn’t know where things were in the cycle anyways. All of this truth is overwritten by contempt. The psychological mechanics of contempt are undoubtedly deep and complex, and perhaps it has a greater purpose in our minds, but that’s not really the point I’m here to discuss today. 

Modern art is driven by contempt. 

From cinema to sculpture, painting to prose, all our cultural centers are populated by people who hold their fellow man in contempt. Our cultural betters are contemptuous of the poor, and will pay them to rot in their homes or on the streets, so long as they stay out of the way. They see the impact an expanding civilization has on the planet and assure themselves it would be better if people just stopped having children and families. Most recently, we discover they don’t even want to breath the same air we do. 

The exact source of this contempt is hard to place and is probably as irrelevant as the mechanics and role of contempt because the real problem with all this contempt for art is that it warps a creator’s concept of truth. (There are other problems for society at large, of course.) When your sense of the world is badly distorted, to the point where most people you meet transform into jingoistic caricatures in the very moment you speak to them, you cannot put truth in your art. Yet such is the behavior of our cultural betters. 

The result is art and story that looks like a funhouse mirror. We’re encouraged to refrain from judgement and look at the circumstances of a person and how they influence moral choices. But the only moral subject we discuss in fiction is race. We’re told people need to be in control of their lives and be strong. But in fiction we’re told that strength is mourning how we are victimized by forces beyond our control. We’re told it’s important to build our own identity. But many who attempt to do so are shamed for abandoning an identity they supposedly share with dozens of others strictly on a basis of genetics and place of birth. 

Contempt has convinced our cultural betters they can simply talk down to us, telling us stories full of contradictions and nonsense, and we’ll eat it up. To an extent, they’ve been proven right. But their myopic vision is poisoning their art and it’s quickly falling apart under the strain of its own nonsense. We’re navigating a horribly depressing artistic world these days. But my purpose isn’t to spend a long time commiserating over the decline of our entertainment and culture. My purpose is to chart the dangers so I can effectively navigate around them. And I am a writer, so I write the process down and share it to help me understand what I am seeing. 

So this is my thesis for the fall. Contempt has warped our culture and we must unpack all the damage it is doing so we can avoid it. What is it hiding from our view? What do we have to reinfuse to our storytelling to restore the balance? Hopefully we will come out the other side wiser for the exploration.