I celebrated when DC Comics’ The Omega Men was un-canceled. I had taken quite a liking to that ragtag group of adventurers and criminals and was excited the creative team would be able to wrap up their story on the timeline they initially expected (12 issues) instead of the truncated one some pencil pusher at DC Comics thought the sales warranted. But with the way mainstream American comics were in 2015 and will likely continue to be until the direct market dies or evolves, I think that pencil pusher was right. The Omega Men deserved to be canceled.
How could I possibly think a book I enjoyed, one that made our list of the 100 best comics of the 2010s, earned its cancellation? Because the The Omega Men creative team (Tom King, Barnaby Bagenda, José Marzán Jr, Pat Brosseau) and their editors were either not aware of the limitations of serialized publishing when trying to play the long game or they trusted their readers to keep buying The Omega Men despite opening with two of the least exciting issues I have read in a long time. King and company forego starting in media res with the familiar characters readers might expect (the solicit teases the death of Kyle Rayner, after all) and instead spend the bulk of the first two issues establishing a galacti-political climate like Tolkien might scrawl the genealogy of the Bagginses before introducing Bilbo or Frodo. It’s not irrelevant, but it might be unnecessary and definitely didn’t need to be delivered in the way it was.
While nothing of what goes down in those first two issues is bad, much of it I found quite boring, and I wasn’t the only one. DC’s weird digital-only prologues to the new series that launched around this time are likely partially to blame for that, but the one for The Omega Men felt like it would’ve been labeled a prologue and set aside before a novel, feeling like a very deliberate setting up of the chess board and detailing to the reader the moves a pawn, knight, etc are allowed to make.
I bought the first three issues of the series the week The Omega Men #3 dropped and added it to my subscriptions the week after, which was when the clerk at my comic shop said he thought about warning me against the series the week before — he couldn’t get past the first two issues. I told him that if I had only bought the first two, I probably would’ve dropped it and never looked back and that he needed to read the third.
But being unable to hook a reader in two issues is often the kiss of death for a serialized comic. The three-month delay between when a store places an order and receives comics has shops gambling early on and then pulling their chips back unless they hit a success for their readers. While this can be frustrating for comics creators and fans, having worked in a comic shop for three years, I understand where this comes from. Many shops have the overhead for the owner and perhaps an employee, and risking money on non-returnable issues of The Omega Men or another title with lackluster sales is like splitting tens at the blackjack table — it’s a gamble that can turn something profitable (staying the course with what you know is selling) into a disaster due to the minimal chance of reward.
As a reader, I’m not known for my patience with reading comics, either; I’ve got too much going on in my life and comics are too damn expensive for me to waste my time and money on anything that’s less than good. I’ve dropped way too many books in the past year after just one or two issues, and even though The Omega Men managed to hook me in that third issue, I haven’t made it apparent why I kept reading after the second issue to begin with. It had absolutely nothing to do with the impression the creative team or the comic had made on me up until that point.
There were two very related reasons why I gave The Omega Men more patience than I thought it was due: I had already bought the third issue, and the series came highly recommended to me by my friend and fellow critic J.A. Micheline. That cost investment only happened because of J.A.’s recommendation, however; without her suggesting I might like the book, I would’ve likely grabbed the first issue and been done with it. I’ll get back to why that matters in a minute.
Falling for The Omega Men put me on the same rollercoaster as most of its fans, with a tempered disappointment at its not unexpected cancellation, a bit of intrigue at King openly saying he was told the series would get a dozen issues to tell its story, and then joy at the announcement from DC that those issues were secured — with the implication that the series will in no way have the sales to sustain itself beyond that initial run. It’s something J.A. and I have talked about at least a bit, and it recently came up in a conversation about artists being willing to take risks in their work while trusting their audience to come along for the ride, to which I asked whether King and company had earned the trust that is necessary for a reader to make it through two issues of prologue released a month apart (and then asked to wait another month before getting to what feels like the real meat of the story).
The question of trust in the relationship between artist and observer/reader/consumer is one that is going to have a different answer for everyone, but it got me thinking about creators I trust to deliver quality works and how they have earned that trust through their works. Ales Kot and Shane Carruth did it the quickest, with their first works in their respective media (Wild Children and Primer), but Grant Morrison was the first creator I trusted to lead me to strange and new places while bringing me back mostly unharmed, starting with his tenure on Animal Man. When I mentioned this in the Twitter conversation I was having with J.A. and Andrea Shockling, David Brothers stepped in and said he wanted to hear more on Animal Man, especially in how it eased me into the strange. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what gave me the gut reaction to say it was Animal Man that won me over and let me trust Morrison for now and (mostly) forever.
I entered Animal Man with no idea of what to expect other than a comic that was very well-regarded and was shelved with all of the Vertigo titles at my comic shop despite featuring a superhero with some of the lamest powers. While it’s probably one of the most grounded of Morrison’s comics, Animal Man does get strange, and it gets strange rather fast. Over those 26 issues, Morrison took me from an Alan Moore imitation to some trippy metafictional concepts and stuck the landing well enough that I have finished nearly every comic he has written, even if I feared it had gone off the rails (exceptions: Happy and Klaus).
A strong case can be made for that first four-issue arc of Animal Man setting the reader up for the British Invasion style of comics from the time, with Morrison admitting he wrote that arc as Morrison through a filter of Alan Moore because he thought that’s what readers (and his editors) wanted. It grounded me, but then the fifth issue — “The Coyote Gospel” — cracked open an ACME-sized crate of metafiction and dumped it before my eyes in a way that could easily be jarring. I’m curious if readers jumped ship after the fifth issue (and how many) or if its strangeness perhaps drew people in (or if people just didn’t know because the comics community wasn’t connected via smartphone and laptop like they are now). I don’t think I would have bailed after “The Coyote Gospel,” but I also can’t know. I was essentially a captive audience, having bought the collected edition and having another few issues left to go. Morrison scaled himself back for the next few issues, letting the meta elements and psychedelic influences creep in from the edges more and more until
In my head, “I CAN SEE YOU!” is the midpoint of Animal Man, with things getting stranger and stranger until Grant meets Buddy Baker in the flesh/ink in the final issue, and while that last issue’s soapboxing still rings true with how I feel about much of mainstream comics and makes me tear up just thinking about it, it was the progression from Moore Lite to I CAN SEE YOU! that earned Morrison the trust needed for me to dive deep into the weird and believe he would pull me out of it by the end. It earned him the trust for me to slog through the Arcadia arc of The Invisibles and decide to keep going. By the time Morrison hit Buddy Baker’s grand realization of existence as a comic book character, he presumably knew he’d earned the trust of his audience to do pretty much whatever he pleased, but if he led with “The Coyote Gospel”? Animal Man might have stayed as the 4-issue miniseries it was originally scheduled to be.
Of course, this was early game Morrison, before he shaved his head, before he actually embraced the psychedelia that showed up in Animal Man, before he asked his readers to masturbate en masse over a Thanksgiving weekend to help save The Invisibles from cancellation, before he wrote a Crisis event that had fans yelling “HOW DARE YOU MAKE US THINK?!” (thank you for that description of Final Crisis, Matt Fraction). Morrison didn’t have a readership that would go along for the ride like he would in just a few years, and he managed to deliver strangeness in a candy-coated bullet with Animal Man in a way that earned a lifelong reader in me. While I talked a bit about Morrison’s pacing and decision to give us a shot glass full of strange in Animal Man‘s “The Coyote Gospel” before handing us a pint of some weaker stuff so we didn’t run away in terror, there are two other things that allowed him to earn my trust that had absolutely nothing to do with his writing on Animal Man.
As with The Omega Men, there was an investment of money that I admit may have affected my desire to keep reading. I read Animal Man collected in a paperback instead of individual issues, and that meant I had about $20 sunk into the series already. I could drop the book and never look back, but I would be more likely to finish it and not move on to the second volume if I didn’t like it. Multiple people recommended Animal Man to me, people whose taste I generally agreed with, and I trusted them to give me something that manages to stick its landing even if it gets to be quite strange in the middle. I feel like The Omega Men will read similarly in a trade paperback now that we’ve passed the threshold for which issues would be included in a collected edition, though unlike Animal Man, it doesn’t have a strangeness to rebound from, simply an excessive prologue.
At the end of the day, the only reason Grant Morrison was able to earn my trust as a reader was because I had critics who told me the journey was one worth embarking on, critics who reassured me of that when I moved on to The Invisibles and then to Doom Patrol (because I don’t read things in publication order). While there have been other creators who have earned my adulation, I chose Morrison for a reason: his works are often described as “difficult,” “dense,” or “impenetrable” (that last one usually applied to The Invisibles and The Filth). If there is a creator who has to earn your trust, it’s one with works that are so often regarded as chores more than they are experiences. I don’t think Tom King is the next Grant Morrison, but I do think I was fair in comparing those early The Omega Men issues to Tolkien in the way they can turn off a reader, and that kind of experiment is one that I’m not sure King had earned the trust of readers with by this point in his career. But I stuck it out because of a critic. A critic who still disagrees with me on those first two issues but is glad that I’ve found joy in in the series. A critic who has very very rarely been paid for her critical writing.
In the current comics market where serialization and getting readers to double (or triple) dip on a series is one of the few ways for creators to make a consistent income, the role of the critic is invaluable in ensuring great series get more eyes on them, lest they face cancellation before being able to tell their whole story. If you do not already have name recognition as a comics creator, there’s a good chance that you have a critic with a love of the medium and a love of your work to thank for sales. Hell, even if you do have name recognition, you should probably be thanking critics who are willing to devote time to reading and writing essays about your work (and often devote money to buying your work) for championing it to fans and new readers. Because most of us don’t get paid to do this. Most of us do it out of love.
We’re the ones who are going to tell readers “no, it’s okay, they’ve got this” when a creator tries to do something that’s fucking strange or leads off their space opera with excessive prologue because they are making comics for the collected edition and not for serialization. The fans of The Omega Men rallied and ranted at DC about the series’ cancellation, and those voices were amplified through thinkpieces on the series written by comics critics and fans.
A writer or an artist might earn the trust of their readers, but critics are the street team of the comics world. In earning the trust of their critics, comics creators now have a kind of authority who is willing to speak on their behalf and assure readers that it’s worth it to keep picking up a $3-4 comic each month, that it will deliver. We are the ones who get the soon-to-be fans in the door and keep them there long enough to realize they have found a new home and no longer need to leave.
This piece has already made some rounds and I’m regretting the note I ended on. While I do think comics critics can be and often are the street teams for a book or a creator, I don’t believe that’s necessarily a positive thing, as it can heavily blur the line between something reasoned and sensible and fanboyish praise. Nor is the comics street team the only role we play. I recently tore into the Lucifer relaunch and how the only thing worth talking about to me was how Todd Klein continues to be an impressive letterer. That’s just as important to me as evangelizing for Kot/Rossmo and company on Wild Children a couple years ago on this site.
Kieron Gillen recently requested that comics review sites be more “useful” on Twitter. Whether he meant “as PR” or “to readers wanting to learn more” feels beside the point; if I write something and put it onto the Internet for people to read, if I have invested my time and money into both reading something and then writing about it, I’m going to have a hard time thinking that the thing I produced is useless. It’s kind of offensive to me that that’s even a response that’s on the table. Reviewing first issues, second issues, and arcs as a whole has value to it, but if I write about issue 4 of a 7-part series, you had better be damn sure I believe there is something of value there, something readers and potential readers should pay attention to.
Most of us write about comics for the love. I can count on one hand how many comics sites actually pay their contributors regularly. If I praise your work to the high heavens, it’s out of a love for the medium and knowing what it’s capable of. If I eviscerate it, it’s out of a love for the medium and knowing what it’s capable of. Whatever the response, praise or the harshest criticism, critics are treating this combination of pictures and words as Art. The capital “A” is intentional. Find yourself a critic whose opinions you trust, ideally one who reads mostly different things than you, and broaden what you’re reading. Trust them and then find the creators you know you can follow into hell and back. You’ll be glad you did.