How to Recognize a Comic Series is "Circling the Drain":

In a recent prologue/introduction to an X-Men Marvel Masterworks reprint volume, someone described the early X-men book as floundering, never being a good seller, and in short "circling the drain".


I thought this was a wonderful expression, as it exactly captures what I felt as a young fan who witnessed many of the growing pains that Silver Age Marvel comics were going through as they attempted to expand their line... say from 1968-71.

 

The glory years *(1964-65-66) never seem to last forever, and by the time we get to 1968, the year of the great expansion in the Marvel line-up, we find a lot of things changing.

 

For me, one of the most obvious signs that a title is in trouble is a change in artist.  And even worse, a rotating list of artists...

Couple this with a series of one-shots ("Done-in-one" is the current expression), inventory or one-time-only stories, each by a different artist, and the signal sent to the fans is that the Bullpen doesn't care enough to keep the characters consistent.  Inventory stories are being used. X-Men #53

 

Another red flag for me is the sudden introduction of someone from the character's past, specifically a family member, heretofore unmentioned.  Best example: The surprise introduction of Alex Summers into the X-men title by a speech by Scott saying "You're about to meet the best-kept secret in the Summers family...." (How little he knew at that time!) X-Men #54

 

A third red flag is a radical redesign in the character's costume.  Example: Captain Mar-Vell's change from Green and White Gene-Colan designed battle suit to Red and Blue/Black with gold Nega-bans in issue #17.Daredevil #7  Captain Marvel 17

 

Fourth, and most obvious, missing schedule slot...so that the monthly book stops coming out or appearing monthly.  Another check mark against Captain Marvel, I'm afraid... with a gap between #21 and 22 that was more than a half year.  And then another gap again.  ( I had to think, "Are these guys serious, or what?")Captain Marvel 21

 

What signs to you recall that series is in trouble, or looking for a home or new direction?

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For the most part I think you've hit the high points. Just a general new direction is a warning sign.  An abrupt shift in style or tone, or an angle introduced and quickly dropped (think Daredevil's electronic cowl or Captain America's transistorized shield or Xavier's crush on Jean Grey) could be an indication of scrambling to duct tape a hole.

Of course, there's also the inevitable guest star appearance from an established seller. How many Marvel series suddenly had a guest appearance by Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four or the Hulk early on?  At least in the Silver and Bronze ages, this was a tactic that was likely to work.

Yes and No.   I agree that sudden appearances of  Spider-Man and/or Human Torch is an effort to boost sagging sales... but without a significant plot purpose for them to show up, or a logical reason why they show up, it usually feels fake. Imagine any other Marvel character in place of them, and the story wouldn't change. That's a good reason to think the appearance is just a sales gimick/stunt.

 

However, there's a little bit more  to the story of the silver surfer.  Stan Lee saw the chracter as a Christ-parallel and  a tourchured figure, trapped on earth.  After about seven double-sized quarter priced volumes, the publisher wanted the plug to be pulled on the book, but Stan decided to try a "more traditional super-hero" approach.  Immediately, the book was split in half, back to 20 pages for 15 cents each, and after one more quarter-sized adventure that obviously had been chopped in half, traditional guest-stars started appearing... Spider-Man, Torch, Nick Fury, etc.  Even Reed Richards made an appearance or two with Thing, as I recall, though they weren't headlined.

George Poague said:

The guest shots "early on" are just a tried and true method of getting readers of an established title to sample a new book. But when guest shots are piled on a few years later, it usually signals poor sales and desperation. Back in 1970, it should have been obvious that Silver Surfer was on its last legs when Spider-Man, the Human Torch, Nick Fury and the Inhumans turned up in consecutive issues.

I dont recall DD's electronic cowl.  Was that the "Fall From Grace" period, where he adopted a black and chrome suit of armor?   Cap's transistorized sheild was mentioned early in his run in Tales of Suspense and over in the Avengers, before being ignored or contradicted.

As for Prof. X's "love" for Jean Grey, I think that's only been mentioned in X-men #1, and Stan Lee wisely dropped the plot thread, in favor of competition between Angel and Cyclops for her attentions.  I don't recall the Prof's love interest in her ever being brought up again,  unless it was to explain that it was more of a paternal love, that had come from years of working with her since the death of her sister (off camera, years before, told in flashback in Bizarre Adventures #27).

 

Or am I wrong?

Randy Jackson said:

For the most part I think you've hit the high points. Just a general new direction is a warning sign.  An abrupt shift in style or tone, or an angle introduced and quickly dropped (think Daredevil's electronic cowl or Captain America's transistorized shield or Xavier's crush on Jean Grey) could be an indication of scrambling to duct tape a hole.

Of course, there's also the inevitable guest star appearance from an established seller. How many Marvel series suddenly had a guest appearance by Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four or the Hulk early on?  At least in the Silver and Bronze ages, this was a tactic that was likely to work.

I thought of another example. 

Surprise new powers.  Example, the Captain Marvel shift we just mentioned, but also more obviously in the original run of The Hulk #1-6.   Anyone who reads those first six issues will notice that in every appearance, the Hulk manifest's different powers, strengths, and abilities.

 

In one adventure, he flies! (Not just jumps, but actually flies!)

In another, his head won't change to green (shades of the classic movie "The Fly!")

In another, he's mentally linked to Rick Jones to control.

In another, he's a raging mind-less monster, or a smoothly calculating professor of atomic power.

The variety of interpretations, all by the same author, is just amazing... or in fact, INCREDIBLE!

 

To some extent, the early appearances of DD also fit, as he looses his hood, and his gimicky billyclub developes new Apps every issue.. almost like James Bond.


The early appearances of the solo Torch also fits the bill, with a bizarre secret identity plotline, his ability to make flaming fascimiles, and to convert to total flame instead of a solid body (and pass through a jet engine!)... much as Subby suddenly developes an ability to mimic any sealife (but it's not continued...)

Daredevil's electronic cowl showed up in Daredevil #8, where he was shown to have a sophisticated radio installed within it, and that his horns were supposed to be antennas. This was quickly dropped--in fact, I don't believe it was ever addressed again.

I have heard (IIRC) that the Xavier/Jean Grey thing was addressed at a later point, although Jean never knew anything about it. I think Xavier was just kicking himself for being silly.

As far as Cap's shield goes, it was actually a plot point in an early Tales of Suspense story. A group of convicts steal Cap's shield to take advantage of it's sophisticated electronics, only to find out that Cap removed them because they threw off the balance of the shield.

Silver Age Marvel was rife with this sort of thing. Other examples include Johnny Storm's "secret identity", Daredevil keeping a tape recorder inside of his billy club, Dr. Strange having money problems, and Thor's "super-ventriloquism".

On a personal level, if I still haven't gotten around to reading the previous month's issue by the time the new one ships, that series is circling my drain.

I don't think it's fair to call Daredevil's electronic cowl or the Xavier/Jean Grey thing as signs either title was "circling the drain." Both of those things happened far too early in either title's run.

 

The electronic cowl -- like Captain America's transistorized shield -- I always saw as a trying-too-hard attempt to explain how they do what they do, and were dropped once they realized the explanation didn't hold up any better than the lack of an explanation, and wasn't really necessary anyway.

 

As for the Xavier/Jean Grey thing, wasn't that just a passing thought balloon in one story? I chalk that up to still figuring out what does and doesn't work in a new title.

I agree.  Less like circling the drain, and more like trying new things out before the character is set in stone.

It's way past the Silver Age, but all the symptoms of a comic book "circling the drain" perfectly describe the Moore-Bissette-Totleben SWAMP THING, which turned out to be one of the great turnarounds in comics history. (Although I thought the Pasko - Yeates stuff that came before it was pretty good, too.)

The same could be said about the X-men, after a fashion...

The very first run of Swamp Thing ended very ignominously around issue 24 or so.  Various 'circling the drain' signs were there to be seen in the last few issues.

 

From the evidence of the letters pages, they knew that the Wein/Wrightson ST was a highly regarded breakthrough in US comics from very early on, but they found it very difficult to sustain the quality. 

 

In the last few issues, they dug up a brother for Alex that we never knew he had, also a whiz biologist as it happened, and the threats started coming from a minor mad/evil scientist from earlier in the run, who decides he has to get revenge on the Swamp Thing.  This guy I think had a sword for a hand (:-P) and wore a supervillain's costume and worked for a Hydra-esque supervillain organisation.

 

It was embarrasing! 

 

Finally, they managed to turn Alex back into a human again, and then without any fanfare or notice within the comic itself, the comic was unceremoniously cancelled.  I'm not sure Alex's reinstated humanity in it was addressed for years after that final issue, if it was ever addressed.

 

Swampy's next regular gig was in the pages of the revived Challengers of the Unknown, drawn by a young Keith Geffin, which took up the numbering from when the Challs stopped being produced years before.  That only lasted about 6 issues and was nuts!  Deadman was a member of the team, as well as Swamp Thing, but no-one knew he was actually there helping them!

Did Thor and Iron Man's return to the Avengers coincide with the cancellation of the first X-Men run? If so, I wonder if this was to ensure a similar fate did not happen to that book?

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