The art of storytelling is difficult to master. The skill to devising a plot. The ability to develop characters. The constant game of cat-and-mouse between the want for character growth and the need to continue the plot. The words by which they are woven together. Every component needs to tell a tale worth hearing.
The game of shock value, on the other hand, is not.
Shock value has become exceptionally common in the comic industry today. Reboots, deaths that last a month, child abuse—it’s all been done just to see an increase in sales. However, there’s a little problem with the new comic book audience.
Readers aren’t picking up books because of shock value. In fact, shock value is leading to a decline in readers, not a sudden increase as executives expect.
Shock value has been present throughout the history of comic books. Originally formulated in comic books to lure in readers’ attention after an exceptional decline in sales, shock value began as a rarity, only to be used in desperate times. Killing off a fan favorite, putting a character’s life on vote, changing a character’s moral code, bringing back a character from the dead—all of these tactics did nothing to further storytelling, but worked wonders in terms of sales.
Today, shock value has become the base of most comics. The true spirit of comic books—the spirit of childlike wonder and imagination—has almost completely died away. A creative plot, a developed ensemble of characters, a unique setting—these central components of storytelling are completely nonexistent in modern comics, while shock value thrives.
Storytelling is sacrificed for shock value. Despite well written arcs being proven to provide long term financial success, they cannot compare to the short term wealth provided by shock value. Fans, who had long given up on comics, return to pick them up. Whether they return in happiness or in rage means nothing to the executives, as long as they return with a wallet in their hand.
At the end of the day, an industry based on creativity is still an industry. It needs money, not a happy fanbase.
But where did they go wrong? Why aren’t the tactics of the old working for the youth?
The answer lies in the basis of the industry itself.
The comic book industry was one set up to fail. Any franchise where an author can pick up a character without any prior knowledge on their backstory is one made to anger fans. Lack of communication between authors leads to no recognizable traits in a character other than, at most, one. As time passes and more new authors write characters with entirely different interpretations on their personality, every character will become a caricature of who they originally were, and even the most creative of plotlines involving that character might not make any logical sense. Storytelling cannot exist without a good understanding of a character, and so, the comics industry lost its grip on creativity. Fans were not pleased with any storyline, so authors began to lose interest. Formulaic storylines, overly cliche plots, and just terrible overall writing plagued the panels of comics. No fan would bother to be interested at that point.
And so, authors returned to shock value.
Currently, DC Comics has been heavily relying on this tactic. Rebirth, the latest reboot, called for a return to the industry’s original storylines and characters, and though it started out with positive response, writers lost originality. They turned back to shock value once again. Killing off fan favorites—Wally West, who had been written out of comics for years, Poison Ivy, whose death served to reestablish Harley Quinn as a villain, and Roy Harper, who, even in the convoluted plotlines existing in DC, truly had no reason to die. Destroying classic characters’ chances at happiness—ending Bruce Wayne’s marriage, and using his emotional state to portray him as an abusive father. The company has been greatly pushing shock value, primarily through Heroes in Crisis.
At first, this shock value worked as it always had. Sales spiked for a period of time, and then dropped. The ever increasing cycle of shock value, sale spikes, and sale depressions was well-received by executives. Money was being made, so the content, at the end of the day, really didn’t matter. However, as the cycle’s rapidity and frequency increased, so did the fan’s tolerance for shock value. Fans simply stopped caring. Shock value slowly stopped affecting people, and sales never really got back up. Comic book sales are declining greatly, and at the lowest they’ve been in a while. Shock value is no longer economically valuable.
In an industry set up to fail, the only true success can be seen in the small glimpses of creativity. Well thought-out plotlines succeed in the long-term, and do much better than shock value in the short term. Economic success can only be achieved through creativity.
However, there is some merit in the value of shock. Plot twists—when well thought out and planned—are enjoyable and do lead to greater interest. But, good storytelling should not be sacrificed in the name of shock value. Current writing tends to serve as a disservice to characters and their histories, and are part of the reason why readers drop comics. A healthy medium between shock and good storytelling leads to both long term and short term gain—but how?
My suggestion: Expand on newer characters. Create newer characters. Explore them. Do not rely on the stories of the past. Carve out a new path of storytelling within the same universe.
Currently, a good majority of the greatest selling comics focus on newer characters—Kamala Khan, Jon Kent, and Duke Thomas, to name a few. Without decades of conflicting history, a well thought out but ultimately restrictive origin, and a large, easily angered fanbase, original characters are key to restoring creativity within the comics industry.
Comic books seek out to tell stories. Let authors create new characters. Let authors create new stories. Profit will always follow creativity.