My Dinner With Brill, Episode #1: Outrage is the New Fun?

I always enjoy talking with Ian Brill--he inevitably brings a new angle on topics I'm considering--so when he asked if I'd be interested in doing a chat on fans and fun, I was more than game. I'd love to do more of these with him (although, don't worry, first I'll try to figure out how to run the "hide post behind jump" trick that commenters have pointed us toward recently), so let us know if that suits your fancy.

IAN BRILL: Mark Waid has said in a CBR interview that "'fun' is a death word in comics these days." I'm beginning to understand what he means by that. Seeing the reaction to One More Day, which I don't want to talk about specifically because I think we've all had enough of that, it seems a lot of fans value the high they get from a major negative reaction to a book. A book like Brave & The Bold, which Waid was talking about in the interview, gives a fan a solid ten or fifteen minute read. But I think the "fun" that fans are looking for now involves the theatre that comes with reading a book, going on-line and arguing about it, reading the articles on Newsarama about it, arguing some more, and so on. The superhero comics with modest goals get lost in the shuffle and are constantly canceled and relaunched. They can't compete because now it seems like a book doesn't really mean something unless it elicits this drama from everyone involved. Well, as you critics so savage are known to ask, what do YOU think?

JEFF LESTER: That's an interesting point, although I may have to throw it back to you pretty quickly: a couple years back, I stopped following Newsarama, ostensibly to stop from spoiling things that were going to happen in books that I liked. But once I did stop following "the N" (and I never bothered with Wizard), I found myself mellowing out a lot about some of this big "OMG, they're going to kill Captain America!" news. When Spider-Man unmasked in Civil War #2, that was pretty much when I gave up hope that I'd be able to draw enjoyment from going on the Internet and rattling the bars of my fanboy cage: I wrote a piece about it for Savage Critic that expressed what I felt, mentioned that I was going to stop buying Civil War, and that was that.

Amusingly, even though it was costing him moolah because I'd pre-ordered Civil War, Hibbs was the guy who kept teasing me about that: "You're really not going to buy Civil War?? Really??? How can a Marvel fanboy like you resist?" And I'm sure that friendly goading helped keep my resolve. But ultimately I found that, whatever attraction "finding out" what happened held for me, I just didn't want to pay for Mark Millar's new pool, or his bionic small intestine, or whatever, you know? So that probably started me on my way to kicking the "Hate" habit. It just seemed like another way to play into the hands of the marketers. I decided to focus on books I really enjoyed--the fun stuff like Brave & The Bold, or Iron Fist, or Blue Beetle--for capes, and a shitload of manga, and leave the rest of the crap behind me.

So although I guess I can agree with what Waid's saying, it doesn't hold any relevance to me or my reading habits. Books that are described as "fun" are the ones I 'm most tempted to pick up these days. But you know, that's my lame, currently non-Savage side of the story.

IB: Let me ask you, do you feel the effect of this climate of sensationalism affecting what you still read? My purchasing habits are similar to yours and I'm in constant fear that the books I dig are headed for the chopping block because no one gives a damn about a self-contained book that his its own stories to tell. Real stories, not just a series of "explosive" events tethered together ever so slightly amongst various books. That's another thing I worry about. The skill to write a real thorough story is losing its value when the interconnectedness of a shared universe can be used as a crutch.

JL: What worries me is almost the opposite: as sad as I'd be to see a book like Blue Beetle get the chopping block, I think it'd be worse if someone at DC thought the best way to "help" the book is inextricably tie its storyline to Countdown. An example might be something like Punisher: War Journal, which had a pretty great first issue, and then got incredibly blah for me: I can't tell if that's because I really don't like the current team's take on the book, or if the book never got a chance to develop a take that wasn't tied to whatever big event was happening in the Marvel Universe. And now that (if I remember correctly) sales are going down, and the tie-ins to Civil War and the Death of Cap are over, how hard is going to be for the team to avoid tying the book into Secret Invasion or whatever big event Marvel's got coming down the pike?

Writing a strong, self-contained story will never lose its value in the marketplace, I think. What's worrisome is that those who can do so will think that they can also do that and start a massive fifty issue event. Sometimes they can--look at Geoff Johns and the Sinestro War--and sometimes they can't--look at Grant Morrison and the Return of R'as Al Ghul storyline which I thought didn't do much more than sap more momentum from Morrison's inert Batman run.

So, for me, as long as Iron Fist and Blue Beetle keep on keeping on, no matter how truncated those books may end up being as a result, at least it ends up being something I can read, and re-read, without the nasty taste of big event cross-continuity affecting everything. But let me ask you this: do you think there's a sweet spot where shared universe events and cross continuity can still be present but avoid screwing a decent title? One of the big joys of a superhero book, I think, is the idea of the shared universe. Do you agree? And if so, how much of that does a book really need? Brave and The Bold takes place all over the DCU, which is part of what makes it (and here's the dreaded word) "fun." What separates that from, I dunno, Countdown to Mystery? At what point for you, I guess I'm asking, does the tool become the crutch?

IB: See I was going to say I would rather have a series I dig do a few crossover issues if it keeps it from getting canceled. If the people behind the book have to play politics to achieve what they want I'm fine with that.

Personally I'm not drawn to shared universes. What draws me to superheroes is the imagination, the strangeness and sometimes the grotesqueries found in a superhero book that go all out. I dig soap operas (well done soap operas that is) that include aliens and guys made out of rocks within those stories. It's not that I mind a shared universe. It's cool that a creative team has a number of concepts and characters they can draw from. I suppose I like the idea as long as it is a catalyst for creativity, not a hindrance. That's why I feel out of step from a lot of superhero stories (and have been for sheesh, coming up to four years now). I subscribe to something of an auteur theory when it comes to comics in the fact that I think the best stories are told by one person or a tight group of a few all doing a great job of achieving high goals they set for themselves. This as opposed to the stories created at summits and handed down by editorial. Perhaps that's what I meant more than implying there are poor writers out there just using a big event to fill up 22 pages easy. If anything, maybe those writers are just waiting to be unleashed!

I want to get back to the fan situation since that's what got my mind started in the first place. I think instead of doing what you did, stopped buying a book you didn't like, most fans keep buying a book (or many books as the case may be) but find someone to turn their feelings of disappointment into elation by going through this process of ridicule and displaying outrage. I mean, you may have hated the retcon they did with Dr. Smash-em-up's history but it gave you a chance to get into a passionate discussion with your pals, and wasn't that fun? So these books still make money and it doesn't matter how outlandish the ideas can be. Fans will still get some kind of a kick out of it. Perhaps I'm making connections that don't exist. What do you think?

JL: You know, before I address your point, let me just say that I do think there are poor writers out there just using a big event to fill up 22 pages--I haven't followed it that closely, but whenever I check out Ghost Rider, it seems to be precisely that and it makes me sad--because you shouldn't have to resort to big crossover events to juice up a book about a flaming skeleton that rides a motorcycle after selling his soul to the Devil.

As for the fan situation, you're right in large part. What you describe is one of the things I enjoyed most about working at CE: talking with Hibbs and trying to make each other laugh about the terrible books we read that week. But one thing I learned at working at CE, and it's worth mentioning in this discussion, is that the fans on the Internet are not the sum total of the fans buying the books. There are lots of people who buy comic books because they want to read shit that is bad-ass. I sold copies of Civil War, Infinite Crisis--hell, even dull ol' House of M--to guys who ate this stuff up with a spoon because it was, again *bad-ass*. So there are assuredly people who think it's really cool that Dr. Smash-em-up is now the Totem of the Smash-em-up God because it means Dr. Smash-em-up can now kick twice as much ass as he used to. And they feel that way because they dug Dr. Smash-em-up since they were five, or nine, or eleven, and they have a very deep complex connection to Dr. Smash-em-up that would be kinda difficult and embarrassing to explain to others. All they can share, really, is their enthusiasm. Similarly, in many cases, people who go apeshit on the Net about Dr. Smash-em-up have that same complex connection, but the retconning changes or challenges that connection. And again, all they can really share is their bitter disappointment. But of course, they go and buy the next issue anyway because that connection is still there. Or they quit the book because it isn't.

What it sounds like you're suggesting--and I think it'd be worth hearing you talk about--is the idea that the fans are, like wrestling fans, enjoying the opportunity to yell and holler and scream, and that's what's keeping the machinery going. Are you suggesting that?

IB: Maybe. Yeah I think so. I'm suggesting that and also saying that books that try to be something more than just a smogarsboard of deaths and rebirths get lost in the melee. I've seen the letter pages of old Marvel books and I've seen what Fantaco put out in the '80s. Fans, some anyway, got real analytical about this shit. That tradition lives on, including on this very webpage. But often I feel that critical thinking has lost to easy jokes and puffed-up anger. Whether it's the fans reflecting the books or the books reflecting the fans I don't know. On the note about fans on the Internet being a minority, that's probably true but there are more blogs and podcasts popping up all the time. Those blogs and podcasts have their own fans who are probably being introduced to the world of on-line fandom because someone at their store said "hey, read my blog." It's a growing minority and I think it's already reached a size worth noticing.

JL: That's a good point. In fact, it may have reached a size large enough to warp its own perception: how many bloggers felt the compulsion to read "Brand New Day" and give their take on it as quickly as possible? I know I did. As more and more bloggers and podcasters hit the scene, it makes sense that the competition for people's eyeballs can lead to an increase in hyperbolic outrage. As a blogger, you feel like you gotta feed the beast, and nothing's easier to react to than some outrageous action by one of the big two.

IB: I think you're right Jeff. There's a certain fervor that comes from both how fast these arguments play out and how many people are involved. I'm a big believer in the idea that whenever you're doing something creative (and I do think blogging and podcasting are creative endeavors) there's value in stepping away from what you're doing and coming back with fresh eyes. I'd like to see fans adhere to that before you get the 100+ page threads that a moderator has to shut down because someone calls for Joe Quesada's head.

Come to think of it, I'd like the creators and editors to employ that strategy of "cooling off" before they come up with the next set of events that are sure to cause fan outrage. Actually, the more I think about this topic I realize there's a thin line between fan and creator in this business. Maybe that's why things can get so heated when creators respond to negative fan reaction. It's not two sides against each other. It's one type of personality looking at itself in the mirror and seeing things it doesn't want to see.