Normally whenever people talk about American comics, they're specifically referring to those of the superhero variety. While there does exist a variety of comics featuring different genres in the United States nowadays, I believe one can make a solid and indisputable argument that the superhero genre in particular has a firm stranglehold on the American comics market. To illustrate this, let's do a search on Google Images using the term "American comics."
You see how most of the imagery presented in the above screenshot consists of superheroes alone? It's no exaggeration to say superheroes reign supreme in the American comics industry with both Marvel and DC as the leading giants. Quite frankly, though, it's not hard to see why.
Throughout the many decades since the debut of the first modern superhero (Superman) in 1938, Marvel and DC would each give birth to an entire universe of colorful characters who would eventually become cultural icons known throughout the world for countless generations, including Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, etc.
We've seen them transition from the comic pages to television, films, video games, toys and plenty of merchandise to boot.
As a child, I grew up on superheroes myself. Static Shock and Teen Titans were among my favorite superhero cartoons, with my number one favorite superhero of all time being none other than Spidey himself. As a very dedicated fan, I would watch Spider-Man movies and cartoons, play Spider-Man video games, own Spider-Man toys, you name it. I even read the original Amazing Spider-Man comics in my junior year of high school, much to my enjoyment at the time.
I pride myself in being a dedicated bibliophile. I have always loved reading books since childhood, with comics serving as my main go-to sources for reading entertainment. Although I primarily read manga (i.e. Japanese comics), I have read a fair amount of American comics as well, including The Amazing Spider-Man, The X-Men, Silver Surfer, Scott Pilgrim, and even The Walking Dead. Due to my fondness for superheroes and an overall interest in exploring the comics from whence they originated, I have made attempts to invest more reading time towards Marvel and DC's comics.
However, I would ultimately come to discover that, unlike manga and other comics, I'm unable to become invested in either Marvel or DC as a whole. I assure you it's not a matter of content or demographic, for I find the mythology and lore surrounding both Marvel and DC's characters to be very intriguing and timeless. After all, there's a reason why these cultural icons continue to be in the mainstream throughout many generations, so the entertainment value is clearly not lost on me. The problem is rather these comic franchises present certain barriers that genuinely inhibit my potential enjoyment of them. These three barriers I will speak of present the biggest obstacle in my ability to become a hardcore Marvel/DC fan, and it's also worth noting that most of these hurdles are inherent in the business practices of both companies.
This is perhaps my biggest barrier to truly enjoying these comics. For those unfamiliar with the medium, comics are usually published as singular stories in an ongoing episodic format. These episodic stories are usually referred to as "issues" in the U.S. and as "chapters" in Japan. Following their initial release, these same stories are later compiled together into collected editions (or volumes): books that collect a certain range of the episodic tales all in one package, allowing readers to easily access the individual stories while also serving as convenient collectibles for those who wish to read a comic in its entirety.
Furthermore, it's safe to say that the majority of readers, including myself, aren't following the comics when they're brand new, so the collected editions are a good way of catching up and experiencing them in all their glory. The problem with Marvel and DC? Every single issue for their various comics has not been compiled together in collected format. Still to this day, there remain issues that are exclusively singles and uncollected in any volume for your reading pleasure.
To put this into perspective, let's say for example that you're interested in reading the entire Amazing Spider-Man series, from the beginning all the way up to the latest issues. Using the Essential Marvel collections (pictured above), you can easily read up to the first 248 issues. Beyond that, though, you're in trouble because no other collections consistently cover the remaining issues, and other collections only compile issues relating to certain story arcs (such as Birth of Venom and Carnage), thus leaving a sizable chunk of missing issues that you can't read without getting the singles themselves (this includes issues #260-292, #324, #326, #327, #334-343, etc.). Compare this to other comics, such as The Walking Dead and Saga, where every issue is fully collected in every volume for your reading pleasure, with the same convenience applying to manga as well.
Admittedly, Marvel is not as bad as DC in this regard since their reboots (and retcons) often affect only certain parts of their established canon rather than the entire continuity as DC does. Nevertheless, both have hit the reset button and thus have changed their respective canons every now and again over many decades.
Now, to be clear, I'm not against reboots in general. In fact, reboots can lead to interesting and unique takes on what you're already familiar with, showing things in a different style from a different perspective that was previously unseen before. They can also serve as an easy gateway to a franchise with a long-running history for newcomers. However, with that being said, I don't think such a concept works well for serial stories, at least when it is applied to its main continuity. When applied in the form of an alternate continuity, I think it works best because it allows the writer(s) to explore new ideas and wild concepts without infringing upon the main continuity. Marvel has previously done exactly this with their Ultimate Marvel line of comics, serving as an excellent example on how reboots should be done.
However, when applied to the main continuity as DC does it, reboots muddle things up because characters and histories you've grown attached to and have invested your time in are suddenly changed and retooled in order to suit the new status quo.
For instance, let's briefly examine the evolution of the Teen Titans character Starfire.
To summarize her original incarnation, Starfire was a young alien woman who wound up on Earth where she joined the Teen Titans after a fateful encounter with the group. She was generally characterized as a strong yet kind and caring woman who also had a flirtatious side. As the Teen Titans comic progressed, Starfire was revealed to have had a very dark and troubled past where she previously suffered years of horrific abuse and torture due to machinations caused by her own sister, Blackfire. As a result, a large part of Starfire's character arc would revolve around her feud with Blackfire and moving on from her past whilst finding new life among her new friends on Earth.
Following DC's universal reboots, however, this original characterization would come to receive drastic changes.
In the New 52 continuity, Starfire was generally characterized as a hedonist who also doubled as a pure fanservice character with no history of associating with the original Titans and even had an altered history with her sister. This apparently caused quite the controversy (the New 52 was polarizing for many fans in general), so when the next universal reboot came along, Starfire's characterization was once again changed. In the DC Rebirth continuity, Starfire was changed to more or less resemble her incarnation from the Teen Titans cartoon while retaining some aspects of her original characterization.
The fans may or may not particularly mind these abrupt changes to the DC universe, but I personally find it difficult to invest in characters and stories where the continuity can be rendered obsolete at any given time to suit whatever direction the company wishes to take them. Overall, it can make your dedicated reading of the previous lore feel pointless along with inherently influencing the audience to adhere to one continuity over the others.
Now don't get me wrong, I love long-running stories! Most of my favorite fictions of all time are indeed long-runners themselves: Animorphs, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, One Piece, etc. It's a testament to a story's success whenever it gives you the feeling of never wanting it to end. With all of that said, though, I still believe in the age-old saying that "all good things must come to an end," and therein lies an issue (pun unintended) I have with Marvel and DC. Their comics NEVER end!
Both companies refuse to give any sort of finality to their comic book characters, preferring to keep them in the limelight and continually create stories around them for countless generations to come. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but unless a character or story can show the potential to evolve over a decades long narrative, it eventually becomes stagnant and uninspired. It's also worth noting that, unlike protagonists of stories with a definitive beginning and ending, superheroes usually don't have any defined goals or dreams of their own and exist only to fight crime. Any major events or meaningful character development often gets retconned or erased by a continuity reboot (just look at Spider-Man: One More Day).
So what's the point in reading a decades worth of these comics if these beloved heroes aren't allowed to grow or change? How long are the X-Men going to fight for mutant equality? They've been around since 1963, and appear no closer to achieving that goal than when they started. How can the writer(s) create compelling villains and stories for Superman if he's so overpowered to the point that there's no reason he should logically lose or fail? For how long can these heroes fight crime before they either retire permanently or die on the job without coming back?
Maybe the never-ending battle against evil is part of the whole point of the superhero genre. It IS thematically appropriate, after all. Nonetheless I find it hard to read these comics knowing they are deliberately designed to be endless, especially when one factors in all the other aforementioned barriers.
THE ULTIMATE CONCLUSION
You know, for all my gripes about Marvel and DC, I can never deny that their comic book characters will forever hold a special place in my heart. At the end of the day, despite my criticisms, both companies have left a positive impact and influence on my life that can never be replaced or taken away. Even though I object to the never-ending nature of their comics, let's be honest here. If it weren't for Marvel and DC striving to keep their iconic characters relevant with new content, we wouldn't have mainstream projects like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Thanks to the comic book fans who have supported Marvel and DC through thick and thin, both companies have come as far as they currently have, giving us the best and worst they have to offer.
Although I'll never be a die-hard Marvel/DC fan, I can still enjoy the multitude of entertainment based on their work: the various animated cartoons, the aforementioned MCU and the DC movies, video games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Injustice, etc. After all, I still love superheroes. I don't need to be a hardcore comic guy to appreciate these masterpieces, and that is alright with me...
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