Why Anthologies Don’t Work (And Why Wednesday Comics Might Be an Exception)

Americans like choice. And when it comes to our entertainment, we want what we want when we want it. Some cultural critics might complain that this shows a deficiency of character in the American people. I’m not making any moral judgments on that subject today. I’m simply noting that’s the way it is, and any entertainment companies that fail to reckon with that reality will find themselves in trouble.

We see this in the music industry. Fans want their music affordable and accessible. I think it’s also apparent that many fans want the ability to buy one or two songs that they really like rather than feeling forced to buy an entire album. I remember talking about this with my friends when I was in high school. Wouldn’t it be nice to buy just the songs you want? I don’t want the whole album; just two or three tracks. Wouldn’t it be nice to create your own mixes of the latest hits, rather than rely on companies to put together compilations which may or may not include your favorites? Record companies weren’t responsive to their customer’s desires so those customers turned to other- sometimes illegal- sources. After originally fighting internet sharing, record companies have at last embraced the new technology. We can indeed do the things that my friends and I only dreamed about in the days before the internet. We can buy just the tracks we want from an album. We can create our own mixes of the latest hits. We control what we listen to.

We see a similar thing in the television industry. This isn’t so much about what we want as when we want it. Viewers don’t want to schedule their lives around television programs. While some fans were already using VCRs to record shows and watch them at later times, the introduction of TiVos and DVRs has multiplied the phenomenon. As many as a third of all viewers watch a program at a time or date other than its original airing. Some channels have tried to combat this phenomenon by starting or stopping shows at unusual times but, like the record company before them, they’re fighting a losing battle. The customers have spoken and we want to control when we watch.

So what does this have to do with anthology comics? Anthologies have a wonderful place in the history of comics. They allowed publishers to introduce new concepts without committing to new titles, as DC did when they introduced an all-new Flash in Showcase #4. They allowed publishers to add new series without adding new titles as a way of managing expansion, as Marvel did when they published split titles such as Tales of Suspense. But the anthology’s place in history doesn’t guarantee them a place in the present.

Today, anthologies are anti-choice. An anthology tells the fans which four creative teams, which four characters or which four series they should follow. While some fans may express an interest in reading four stories for the price of one comic, they also carry the occasionally unexpressed desire to pick out those stories- not unlike me and my high school friends when we used to daydream about creating our own mixes of the biggest hits of the year.

That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for an anthology to work today. But it does indicate that it’s incredibly difficult. A Stuart Immonen fan may not want to read a Stuart Moore story. Or a Spider-Man fan might not care about Hellcat or Guardian. That fan probably isn’t interested in paying for a comic when he’s only interested in half of the content. Similarly, a fan may not be interested in committing to a series in which he doesn’t know whether the writer will be JT Krul or Tony Bedard or Frank Tieri from one month to the next. You may disagree with my choice of examples, but they come directly from low-selling or failed anthologies Marvel Comics Presents and JSA Classified.

For many fans, reading an anthology would be like committing to watch CBS every night at 8:00, whether the show is Two & a Half Men, NCIS or Survivor. Or it would be like buying a double album from RCA featuring Cristina Aguilera and Daughtry. They may be provided by the same company, but that doesn’t mean the audiences are identical. Even if the audiences overlap, the customer still wants to be able to control his own choice regarding his entertainment.

Yet, despite those incredible obstacles, I still think Wednesday Comics might be a huge success. I think Wednesday Comics has several factors in its favor which should help it overcome the anthology stigma. First of all, Wednesday Comics isn’t being presented as just another anthology. It’s being presented as the anthology. More than that, it’s being presented as the big event of the summer (even moreso than the Green Lantern crossover Blackest Night). A lot of customers might just check it out because of curiosity, the way that moviegoers will go to the big blockbuster or television audiences will check out the show that everyone is talking about. That’s not a guarantee of continued success but it does increase the odds of initial success.

Second, Wednesday Comics is an all-star event. It’s the only place to see renowned and respected creators like Neil Gaiman, Mike Allred, Dave Gibbons and Joe Kubert working on DC’s characters. It’s an incredible line-up of talent. Television variety shows may not work on a week by week basis anymore, but the occasional big event variety show can still pull in an audience. Fans will watch the Grammies or a big benefit concert like the Rolling Stones.
Finally, Wednesday Comics is temporary. That was already a consideration in the first two factors but it’s worth noting on its own. DC isn’t asking fans for an ongoing commitment. It’s a specific series with a beginning and an end, meaning a lot more fans are willing to give it a chance.

I still think that, in general, anthologies are a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean the occasional unique project, like MySpace Dark Horse Presents or Wednesday Comics, can’t catch our attention.

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Comment by Chris Fluit on June 27, 2009 at 4:40pm
And here's this week's article.

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