Age of Ultron
Do I think that a massive fan backlash is going to bring low Game of Thrones and cause HBO to lose millions of subscribers? Obviously not!
Comics is a strange world. It's small enough and the people who participate in it are intense enough that we take it for granted that this way of reading is normal. We live in a weird funhouse world. There's a term from art history, mise en abyme, which literally means "placed in abyss" - used to describe scenes in art where two mirrors are placed opposite one another and the viewer can see the reflection of one of the mirrors in the other. The most famous use of this technique - by which I mean, the picture you will most likely see in any art history reference volume to describe the technique - is Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas. It seems as if the comics industry is predicated on this type of abyssal discourse, predicated on the unquestioned assumption that the industry is small enough that anyone with sufficient expertise and vigor can make of themselves an authority. I think the relative size of the industry is of vital importance here: in a small room, it's easy to see the reflections of two mirrors placed on opposite walls and to trick yourself into imagining a vast cathedral in the space of a closet. It's a tight abyss.
Whereas most (but certainly not all) of the old-school entertainment industry is built on a one-sided delivery model, comics (and other nerd media) is fixated on the idea (usually illusory but still deeply ingrained) that the field is a two-sided conversation between fans on the one side and professionals, publishers, and corporations on the other. It's a strange thing indeed that the current media landscape is forcing much of the entertainment industry to adapt to the exigencies of this metastasized strange microbrew environment of instant (hypothetical) responsiveness. Now that so much of entertainment is small-bore niche programming and DIY operators, this is how people who want to work in art and entertainment have to operate - they have to at least pretend they care about the idea of fans as something other than abstract Neilsen numbers or Billboard sales statistics.
But no matter how many different methods they can figure out for movie stars, TV personalities, and famous singers to interact with fans without actually having to, you know, interact with them in any meaningful way, they're still most likely never going to be able to equal the comics industry in terms of actual interaction. You can go online right now and find a Tumblr where one of Marvel's Senior Vice Presidents of Publishing will answer any and all questions, even stupid and insulting ones. By any measure that's pretty neat, right? Imagine a Senior VP at Warner Brothers or Fox having a Tumblr like that. It's a strange world, this comics scene, where we can actually interact not just with the creators themselves but with the executives and editors who tell the creators what to do. it gives us a weird feeling of entitlement. The people who started printing letters' pages in Golden and Silver age comics were coming from the tradition of the sci-fi pulps, another field built on a porous relationship between fan and creator. I wonder, if they could have seen how it all turned out, if they would have done anything different.
I am amused by the fan reaction to the last season of Game of Thrones for the same reason that I am amused at the progress of Age of Ultron.
As of this writing I haven't read the last issue of Age of Ultron, even though it has apparently leaked. So I don't know if the rumors that have been flying around for the last few months have been accurate or not, and furthermore I don't know if the story ends on anything even remotely resembling a satisfactory note. Odds don't look good, nine issues in, I can tell you that. So far, Age of Ultron has been pretty terrible, and it doesn't look as if the final issue is going to be some kind of strange kamikaze left-turn that will validate all the previous nine issues worth of fuck-all. I live to be proven wrong, however - if I am not the perfect model audience for a storyline called Age of Ultron, I really don't know who is.
The story is abysmal. It seems to have been written for the specific purpose of pissing off its audience, which is a really odd sensation to get from a book that, all told, will cost its readers $40 + tax. (Does issue #10 cost more because it's double-sized?) When compiled into a shiny hardcover (which will probably inexplicably also retail in the $40 range) it will take less than a half-hour to read, and that's being generous and assuming you read slowly. Reading the story on an issue-by-issue basis, it's really remarkable how much of a cheat each issue has been - it's not as if every issue has left the reader hungry for more, it's as if they only remembered to print half the issues, and the half that made it to print was the half without the plot. It doesn't surprise me at all that the final issue is double-sized, because as it stands now they're going to need at least half of those pages to be solid walls of text in order to explain all the stuff they conveniently left out of the rest of the series. But I am dead certain that the double-sized pages are not going to used to provide the missing exposition, but will instead be even more in the way of random landscape shots, a handful of brief gnomic conversations, and then a few non sequitur teaser endings.
So, to recap: a long-anticipated event called Age of Ultron has lasted nine issues without actually once showing the title character. Oh, wait, scratch that - Ultron did appear, finally, on the last page of the ninth issue.
If this scene looks familiar, that's because you may have already read it, back in 1968:
Rather than giving us a story about fighting Ultron, Age of Ultron is instead a time-travel story about what happens when the heroes go back in time to prevent Ultron from having demolished the human race. Or rather, to be more precise, it is a story about what happens when Wolverine goes back in time to prevent Ultron from having demolished the human race, which is something everyone else knows is a bad idea because they've all read "A Sound of Thunder" and know how that ends. So rather than providing any kind of climactic battle with Ultron, I fully expect the final issue to show the negative consequences of Wolverine having gone off the reservation to stab his way across history. (Isn't this basically the premise of Exiles? Why didn't those time-travelers break the multiverse?) After nine issues, this is the climactic cliffhanger: a flashback from 1968's Avengers #58, illustrating the creation of Ultron. Which is certainly an interesting approach to making a cliffhanger in the year 2013.
I'm going to be generous here and say that there is the kernel of an interesting idea at the heart of Age of Ultron. It's not a new idea, it's not even a particularly interesting idea - but good creators have done a lot more with a lot less. The problem is almost entirely one of execution. However, there is a kind and merciful God. he series has been released at a rapid clip: the first five issues were almost weekly, and the second half has been bi-weekly (save for the tenth, I believe). One the one hand, it is somewhat nice to see a series like this actually come out on time, and even at an accelerated schedule. On the other, the story itself has made it blindingly obvious that anything other than an accelerated release schedule would have kneecapped the venture entirely by laying bare the complete lack of plot in excruciatingly plain terms. One issue a month would have made the series not just a poorly-received event (which is patently already is) but a complete joke.
Shipping the series so quickly has paid ample dividends for the company. Take a look at sales for the first six issues, courtesy of Paul O'Brien:
4,6,7. AGE OF ULTRONSet aside the usual first issue drop, and these are remarkably solid sales. Imagine sales for the series if the story had been allowed to dribble out slowly over the course of ten months. They would have lost quite a few readers by month ten. I don't think this is one of those series that would have picked up momentum over the course of a year - far from it. Marvel gambled that dumping over half the series in one fell swoop would pay off with stable sales, ensuring that later orders could only be hurt so much by poor word of mouth. The gamble worked. We don't have the luxury of hopping into Dr. Doom's time machine in order to see a parallel world where the series was released at a more standard rate, but we can guess that there are definite reasons why the story was sold the way it was. I wonder how sell-through has been for later issues of the series, or if we're going to be seeing copies of this book in the quarter bins for years to come.
03/13 Age of Ultron #1 of 10 - 174,952
03/13 Age of Ultron #2 of 10 - 109,383 (-37.5%)
03/13 Age of Ultron #3 of 10 - 105,505 ( -3.5%)
04/13 Age of Ultron #4 of 10 - 101,057 ( -4.2%)
04/13 Age of Ultron #5 of 10 - 97,982 ( -3.0%)
04/13 Age of Ultron #6 of 10 - 97,242 ( -0.8%)
This isn't a new problem. This has been the standard complaint regarding Bendis' event stories for almost a decade. (House of M was released in 2005!) Rather than addressing the problem, Bendis has been allowed to continue to write these stories in this way more or less unchecked. Now, he's obviously made a lot of money over the years for Marvel. There are good reasons why he is allowed more-or-less carte blanche regarding these events: he has a proven track record of producing stories that sell well out of the gate and that (perhaps inexplicably) continue to sell in collected form years later. But the criticisms regarding the pace of his stories has never abated. Releasing Age of Ultron so quickly is probably the best way to counter this problem, short of - you know - actually trying to write a single issue that takes more than four minutes to read.
Thankfully, Brian Michael Bendis keeps a Tumblr where he answers fan questions on topics such as these. One fan wrote him to suggest, in reference to Ultimate Comics Spider-Man:
Could I ask you to read one of your recent books, any of them that cost 3.99$ and time yourself when you do, and then sit down and read Transmetropolitain #1 or Preacher #1 timing yourself again, then explain to me why I should pay 3.99$ for Mile's story when I make 10.50/ hr?To which Bendis answered:
First of all, I have done all of those things.This answer does a fantastic job of encapsulating what could best be described as a dysfunctional dynamic within the mainstream industry. There's an idea on the part of creators and editorial that any reader who complains about not getting their money's worth must be reading their comics wrong. When Bendis states, "I don’t know if you’re skimming or staring at the beautiful artwork," there's a really profound disconnect here between what the creator himself has learned to value and what the fans themselves value.
I have read every issue of my book at least a dozen times before you see it and I’ve read everything Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis have ever done (sans some of those wacky avatar books :-))
I don’t know how long it takes you to read. I don’t know if you’re skimming or staring at the beautiful artwork. I don’t know if there is a value system to how much time it takes to read something versus how well it is written or how true the writing is.
word count does not equal good. the words are not the only thing on the page.
some of my favorite songs are under two minutes long.
buy things that make you happy.
all i can do is make comics i would buy with my money. i would buy Ultimate Spider-man.
I've been reading comics for almost as long as I've been alive - literally, some of my very first memories are buying Batman comics on family car trips and staring at them in my car seat. I study, write about, and teach literature for a living. If I don't have at least some ability to judge the aesthetic merits of a comic book after all this time, then I honestly don't know who does: there's my sense of entitlement for you. I write a comic book blog with a 9 1/2 year paper trail - you can look back through the archives and find every stupid thing I ever wrote, every creator I ever needlessly antagonized, every sweeping generalization I popped off and then painfully retracted. I know a few things about how comic books work. And I know that when a creator says something like "I don’t know if there is a value system to how much time it takes to read something versus how well it is written or how true the writing is," there is something very profoundly missing in terms of a reciprocal, cordial, sympathetic dialogue between a creator and fan.
The "value system" is simple: if a comic is entertaining, it is doing its job and the reader is left with few if any complaints. If the comic is unentertaining, for whatever reason, than the creator has failed at his or her job. People don't poke holes in a comic they enjoyed. Pointing out that a Bendis comic is decompressed and doesn't provide enough story for the reader to feel as if he's gotten his or her money's worth should really not be a point of controversy in the year 2013. If a reader tells you they're not getting their money's worth from your book, you damn well better apologize. You don't have to swear to change everything overnight - if you've got a style that still succeeds in getting customers in the door, there are obviously sufficient people around who do appreciate what you're doing. But don't tell your fans they don't know how to read. Say you're sorry and move on.
How do you read comics? I don't know about you, but I really don't read most superhero comics with the kind of care and diligence I would use to read Love & Rockets. If I see a two-page spread of smashed buildings and rubble - and boy howdy, are there lots of two-page spreads of smashed buildings and rubble in Age of Ultron - I'm going to scan it to see what the relevant information is before turning the page. I'm not lingering over the drawings. Because, sure, Bryan Hitch can draw. He can draw really well. But asking him to draw page after page after page of smashed buildings and rubble is just stupid. It's moronic. It betrays a pathological inability to understand the most basic difference between detailed drawing and involving stories. Yeah, seeing a couple pages of carnage is fun. But so much of the first half of Age of Ultron is just the same thing repeated over and over again. Now lets do the same thing with different characters! What are Black Panther and Red Hulk doing in Chicago? Pretty much the same thing as Black Widow in San Francisco! Lots of people scurrying around in rubble waiting for a plot to happen. And then, the worst part, the absolute worst part, is that the real "story" as such doesn't even begin until the end of the fifth issue. It's not until they actually get into the time machine - one group of heroes heads into the future for a last-ditch assault on Ultron, while Wolverine and Sue Storm hijack the machine to go into the past - that the actual business of telling the story they intended to tell gets underway.
Stop a minute and think about the fact that this story is called Age of Ultron. I know I made this point before - forgive my repetition - but when you see a story called Age of Ultron, do you expect Ultron to appear in that story? Do you expect the story to be in some way about Ultron? You could write roughly the same story about Dormammu, or Korvac, or Dracula, or Thanos, or the Leader, or really, any massively powerful villain with a deep history who could conceivably conquer the planet and do serious damage under the right circumstances. (Pointing out that this is also part of the plot of Age of Apocalypse is surely redundant at this point, yes?) In the early issues we got an endless supply of Ultron drones, and one legitimately interesting twist when it was revealed just who was directing the drones to hunt for Avengers, but no Ultron. Based on the way the plot has progressed, there is simply no way that issue ten contains anything resembling a climactic battle with Ultron - if Wolverine and Sue Storm have succeeded, the "Age of Ultron" will never have come to pass. There will be no reason to actually fight the villain, which means the actual confrontation will probably last a couple pages before fading out into one of those white panels that indicates a timeline has been destroyed or overwritten, at which point the story will switch gears to describe the terrible consequences of Wolverine's actions.
Back to Bendis' Tumblr, he addresses another, more complementary fan query:
How did you come up with the Age of Ultron story? What made you want to write it? Also, it seems like there could have been numerous ways to write this story, did you always have one concrete way of telling it? Or were you in between different plot ideas? Thanks!To which our man answers:
It started with the very writerly idea of taking a villain, a classic villain, whose promise has always been complete apocalypse, and deciding to start the story after the apocalypse has already happened. what if the villain won?I don't think a massive blockbuster event story is the right place to conduct some kind of radical genre experiment.
the germ of the idea started when I was writing the avengers THQ video game that you will never see because they no longer exist and the game was canceled ( I still have a copy, it was a good game) and the premise that they had come to me with is: Secret Invasion but the alien invasion had already taken place. the avengers got caught with their pants down kind of story. I thought to myself that if I would do Secret Invasion again I would love to do it that way. just drop the reader right into the story instead of the traditional build up.
I was also, and continue to be, obsessed with the idea of a story that starts with one genre and flips to another. movies like Barton Fink where you think you know what kind of story it is and then all of a sudden, an hour later, you realize it’s completely different.
knowing that both of these ideas could be frustrating to some of the readers who have been groomed on the traditional three act structure of an event comic, I knew I was going to take a bit of a beating from some corners of the Twittersphere because you can’t even judge the piece until it’s completed, but, as is my way, I don’t care. :-) once an idea gets in my head it’s very hard not to do it.
but this entire year has been a big transition for me as far as genre and style and I have been so relieved at the positive feedback and support.
and as Tom tweeted today, the final issue is, to my surprise as well, black bagged for your protection. and with the final issue all my cards will be on the table
We're not talking about art films here. We're talking about a superhero crossover. I can't help but read these words and come away with an unmistakable feeling of contempt - maybe not explicit contempt, sure, but a lack of respect nonetheless for the fans and readers who buy these stories, and even the stories themselves. The fans and readers who "have been groomed on the traditional three act structure of an event comic," who might actually like that type of story, and who might be feeling more than a little bit ripped off about the fact that the finished product has transformed into some kind of Coen Brothers hybrid right before their eyes. There's a reason why they don't hire the Coen Brothers to direct The Transformers - sure, they might produce a really interesting movie about transforming robots from space, but chances are it wouldn't be a particularly popular one.
And on some very basic level, if you work in the more popular reaches of the entertainment industry, then don't you have to be conscious of the fact that you are producing popular entertainment? I would argue that there is a profound disconnect here between a creator who is - by his own testimony - bored of writing blockbuster crossover stories, and an audience who have every expectation of receiving a blockbuster crossover story. As it stands, Age of Ultron is half monumentally boring post-apocalyptic travelogue, and half time-travel story - the second half literally moots the first half, but you still spent $20 on all those beautifully drawn two-page spreads of rubble. (No flies on Hitch, but even he had to be thinking "enough is enough with all this damn rubble!")
We have the comics industry we deserve. On one side of the fence you have an armed camp micromanaged by corporate drones who do not appear to understand the most basic rudiments of storytelling, and on the other side you have rows of auters who have been empowered by the unshakeable belief that they are creating great works of durable art and not actually corporate-owned superhero comics. Neither philosophy succeeds particularly well in creating readable superhero adventure stories. There is a point between the conception and execution of a grand narrative where the ambitions of the creators must come into direct conflict with the expectations of the audience. The conflict threshold for superhero comics is quite low, and every creator who purposefully puts themselves into conflict with the expectations of their audience really has to work had to justify the friction.
The conflict threshold for epic fantasy is usually quite low as well, but somehow George R. R. Martin has made the tension work for him. I was fascinated by the discourse surrounding the last season of Game of Thrones because it has been very interesting to see how plot points intended for prose have been scaled to meet the requirements of a mass-medium television audience. Television programs that intentionally alienate their audiences don't have a history of lasting very long, but all indications point to Game of Thrones being the exception that proves the rule, the franchise whose appeal outweighs the appeal of any single character or plotline.
Age of Ultron is no Game of Thrones. Although Bendis would surely like to believe that he is a genre-twisting auteur who has, like Martin, earned sufficient trust from his audience to be able to count on their enthusiasm to follow any wild story he can conjure, his poor critical track record with blockbuster events speaks for itself. It's important at these moments to remember that the comics industry is no captive audience, although we certainly do style ourselves as such. We don't have to eat the turkey if we don't want to. Sometimes the abyss is just one-sided mirror.