Don’t Make it Good, Just Make it Sell

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September 13, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Andrew Doscas

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So, I read comics, not as much as I used to, but I still do.  The only two series that I still follow are Green Lantern and Fantastic Four/FF; however, I do buy vintage X-Men comics from the 80s and early 90s, but that’s because they are some of the best comics I’ve ever read.  I used to follow many more series, but something happened when I was about 19; I didn’t outgrow them, no one made me stop reading them, I just realized that comics aren’t as good as they used to be, plain and simple.  The storylines aren’t as engaging or meaningful as they once were, and in terms of character development, characters have either regressed to the one dimensional stereotypes they were 30 years ago, or they are taken in a direction that is so completely antithetical for who the character is.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for change and development, but as with any real life person, it has to fit, it has to feel natural.  For example, Grant Morrison’s Cyclops makes sense because after being possessed by Apocalypse for a year, his natural response would be to question his entire life and withdraw himself from everyone for fear that he isn’t who he once was: a very human feeling in general.  What doesn’t make sense is Cyclops literally becoming the next Magneto, vowing to kill off every Avenger, remember Cyclops is a hero.  With that being said, you can probably guess that my favorite comic book series is X-Men, with my favorite character being Cyclops.  And so, to see what Marvel has done with my favorite character is not only a complete reversal of who he is as a character, but also typifies why comics, X-Men in particular, haven’t been very good in about 20 years.

Having every issues of Uncanny X-Men from 200-315 (arguably the golden age of all things X-Men), it’s very difficult to see what they’ve become and how far they’ve fallen as a franchise.  Now understand, I’m only 21, I’m not someone who first read those old issues (back issues) when they first came out; I have the advantage of hindsight and history on my side.  Still it makes it depressing nonetheless, as I’m able to compare the present to the past and discern that somewhere along the line X-Men took a (big) dip in quality.

Now, the easiest answer as to why this happened is because that despite the fact that Marvel and DC make comics, they are a business, and as such, their first priority is to make money. Therefore, selling as many comics as possible is more desirable then making good ones.  This really became much more evident in the late 80s and early 90s because of the massive and unprecedented success of the X-Men franchise.  The X-Men occupy their own universe in the grand scope of comic continuity, and that is not an embellishment.  There are a ton of characters, many created and/or fleshed out by the architect of the X-franchise himself Chris Claremont, who wrote the series for 16 years (1975-1991).  He is the reason why X-Men took off as the most successful comic book franchise of all time.  He treated the characters as real people and brought them into situations that tested who they were, not only as heroes but as human beings; this really hadn’t been done to such a drastic degree before.  As a result, Uncanny X-Men’s popularity took off around 1981 and ushered in the golden age of X-Men.

At first, having a few extra but independent X-Men series worked.  They focused on different characters and followed different storylines.  After a while (around 1992) the editors decided to have frequently intersecting storylines across different titles that way fans would buy more comics to complete the story.  And therein lies the problem.

Comics are now about the big crossover storyline and character development is but on the backburner.  In order to justify buying a few extra titles that fans normally wouldn’t buy, the powers that be make sure something of shock value occurs within the crossover, and usually it’s something so drastic that when you think about it, you realize that it either didn’t make sense, or that the character would never do that in the first place at all.  Why is it that every time Apocalypse shows up, some X-Men have to defect and become Horsemen?  Why does Sunfire feel the need to join with Mr. Sinister, why does Gambit perpetually betray the X-Men?  Why does Bishop wanna kill a baby?  And why did Cyclops have to kill Professor X?  I’ll get back to that last one in a minute…..trust me.

While having multiple titles that pertain to a certain franchise works in moderation, as it gives readers a chance to explore the universe that the characters interact in, too many titles prove to be a horrible thing.  Just by virtue of having so many X-titles (12 last time I checked) it already over complicates the stories because of the timeframe that they operate in and also the fact that the same characters can be in different titles at once.  However it makes it easier to have crossover events which as I’ve said are all about sales.

Another thing about crossover events that X-Men have co-opted into their stories which bug me are the looseness of the stories themselves.  Either two things happen: 1) the lasting effect of the story is rectified shortly thereafter (Wolverine getting a new adamantium skeleton a few years after Magneto ripped the old one out), or 2) an unending storyline/plot hole.  Two examples of the latter that any X-Men fan of any age would recognize are the origin of Cable and the role of Hope, the messiah child.  Cable was created in 1990, just to help slumping sales for the New Mutants title.  Because of his quick rise to popularity, writers didn’t have time to come up with a solid origin backstory.  Because of this, writers only gave slight hints and vague innuendos as to who he really was.[1]  Two years after the character’s inception, fans were promised the origin of Cable and his relation to Stryfe in the X-over “The X-Cutioner’s Song”.  This didn’t happen; instead readers were given all new questions and false leads to follow.  Not only did we not find out his backstory, but now fans had to wonder who was the real Nathan Summers (Cyclops time displaced son), Cable or Stryfe.  On top of that, it would be another two years (1994) before readers got the truth. Cable was the real Nathan Summers and his origin was told in the miniseries The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix.[2]  Despite the dissemination of Cable’s true identity, the reveal came in an obscure issue of Cable’s own miniseries (Cable 6-8), not even in one of the two X-Men titles of the time (Uncanny X-Men and X-Men).  This was done to create buzz about a new series in order to draw sales.

Hope Summers is my generation’s Cable.  Introduced five years ago, I still have no idea as to what her overall importance is to the X-Men universe.  Apparently she’s supposed to save mutantkind, with all the information that I don’t have, I really don’t give a shit anymore.  The whole mystery about her and how she saves the mutant race and her role in the future has simply gone on for far too long.  People lose interest, but because most people need to know what will happen, they keep spending their money waiting to find out.  We are a totally irrational and habitual group of people, us comic book readers.  We don’t even know who she is or who her parents were.  At some point there were hints that she would be the phoenix[3] (another once great concept that has been beaten to death over the past 20 years), but we know that’s not true now.  As I’m writing this I’m getting fed up at the lack of consistent and frankly good story telling, because there is such a disregard for substance anymore; it’s all about style because style is what sells.  The point is that after a while, people stop to care because the plot just gets too overplayed and too drawn out.

So we’ve (sic I) spoken about plots for the sack of sales, and unending story arcs, now let’s bring it together and throw in the destruction of a character’s integrity.  There’s no better example than the current Avengers Vs. X-Men event.  For those of you who don’t know, the name says it all.  For some reason the Phoenix force comes back to Earth, the Avengers get pissed off, and try to invade the X-Men’s stronghold.  The X-Men don’t like that, put away their difference between Cyclops’ camp and Wolverine’s camp and beat up the Avengers.  Eventually the Phoenix comes to Earth and possesses Cyclops and four other X-Men.  Every time one of the Phoenix five is defeated their strength then goes to Cyclops who gets more powerful and crazier.  Apparently as we’ve just found out, Cyclops becomes the only Phoenix left which means he has all the power of the Phoenix to himself, and kills Professor Xavier (the man who’s been more of a father to him than his real father, Corsair).  There are so many things wrong with this paragraph, and so many things that I really wish never happened.

Leave the Phoenix force alone!  Every time they bring it back it just sullies the original “Dark Phoenix Saga”.  It becomes almost like a game: who’s gonna be possessed by it this time?  Secondly, the X-Men and Avengers have already fought before, there’s no need to do it again.  What I don’t understand is why someone at Marvel thought it would be a good idea to turn Cyclops into Magneto.  Just like Magneto would never start a new holocaust in the middle of New York City (New X-Men 149), Cyclops would never become as militant and aggressive as Magneto.  The character of Cyclops, who he is as a person, is not extroverted enough to do that.  He’s confident, but it’s a quiet confidence where he knows he is capable to lead the X-Men.  And you’d think that after seeing what Jean Grey went through with the Phoenix force, he’d be strong enough (he is) to either fight off its influence or not get possessed by it in the first place.  And why the hell did he kill Professor Xavier?  I mean, if I can think of a list of things that should never happen in comics that would probably be at the top of my list.  Not only that, but one editor at Marvel said that they chose to kill him off because he wasn’t really involved in any of the stories.  They’re really gonna kill off the Professor X just because they had nothing better to do.  What horrible editors, if they’re just making death an excuse to kill off someone because a character doesn’t factor into a storyline.

But that’s the nature of comics nowadays, especially X-Men comics.  They don’t do something because they think it’s a good idea, they do it because they think it’ll sell.  While this has always been the case, it’s never been more painfully obvious than now.  Seeing how great the X-Men used to be, it makes it frustrating to see all the liberties and carelessness that pervades what was once considered to be the greatest comic franchise in the world.  But with the recent trend of sacrificing storytelling for sales, I fear that the glory days of the X-Men will forever be behind us.


[1] In hindsight, after X-Factor 68 in 1991 it should have been painfully obvious that Cable and Nathan Summers were the same person.

[2] Despite coming out in the mid-90s it actually is a very good read, and one of my favorite storylines.  Although you have to know the entire Cable saga to enjoy.

[3] A cosmic entity who preserves the integrity of the universe.  It once possessed Jean Grey and committed genocide in her honor.

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