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Perception Vs. Reality: ‘Long Writer Runs’ At Marvel & DC [Opinion]

Nightwing Fantastic Four Batwoman

Last week, two of the very small handful of writers still working on DC Comics’ New 52 titles they launched announced they were finally ending their runs. In the case of Teen Titans writer Scott Lobdell, the catalyst was the complete cancellation of the title with issue #30. Nightwing, meanwhile, will continue, but Kyle Higgins won’t be writing it.

A distinctly different animal than the independent cartoonist, creators-owned collaboration or even work-for-hire artist, writing gigs in ongoing cape comics have always been fluid, but the turnover seems to be faster and more common now than it’s ever been. Whether a result of cancellations, writers moving on to other things (often finite, creator-owned work), or creative differences with editorial, Marvel and DC writer runs are getting shorter and shorter.

Or are they? Maybe it just feels that way?

First, let’s back up for a second and consider why a long run is desirable. In the immediate, fans who like particular writers don’t want to see them leave books they like. Peter David wrote The Incredible Hulk for 12 years and people wanted him to stay. And although the business of Japanese comics is very different than the American industry, that Western readers can plow through thousands of pages of manga authored by a single person (and their assistants) while a Marvel or DC trade paperback may feature 100 or so pages by six different people probably has an effect on our perceptions. Maybe it’s that readers like writers’ specific voices, or it’s quite likely that readers enjoy seeing seeds writers plant early in their runs pay off years later. Sometimes delayed gratification is the most satisfying. That seems to be particularly true of comics and comics fans, who rarely take news of a truncated run well.

With Jeff Lemire leaving Animal Man in March, Higgins and Lobdell’s departures leave a small number of writers still working on the DC books they (re)launched in September 2011: Brian Azzarello on Wonder Woman, Scott Snyder on Batman, Peter Tomasi on Batman and…, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti on All-Star Western, Brian Buccellato on The Flash, and Gail Simone on Batgirl. No “DCnU” book has even released its 30th issue yet, so that only these very few writers have remained — out of more than 52 new series — seems pretty startling.

Meanwhile, Marvel is a whole world of upheaval, with creative changes feeding into strategic, aesthetically-conscious relaunches so regularly that it’s hard to even keep up. It’s far easier to keep tabs on the Marvel exceptions: Brian Michael Bendis is approaching 200 issues of the various Ultimate Spider-Man titles, which is astonishing for any number of reasons. Dan Slott’s been the sole writer of the mainline Marvel Universe Spider-Man books Amazing and Superior since 2010, and before that he was part of the Amazing Spider-Man “brain trust.”

Still, it’s hard not to think of all the abbreviated or intentionally short runs of comics writers just over the past year. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton’s Young Avengers was a (planned) 12 issues. Matt Fraction’s work on Fantastic Four and FF was cut short, with other writers brought in to finish the stories. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Avengers Assemble is ending after a little over a year. And there are any number of DC books with runs that were over more or less just as they were getting started. Andy Diggle’s Action Comics run comes to mind, as well as Marc Bernardin’s two-issue run on Static Shock, and the four writers who’ve passed through Superman since 2011, the three writers of Suicide Squad… the list goes on.

So what is happening? One factor is, from a creator perspective, very positive. A solid two or three-year run on a Big Two book can bring a writer market cache, perhaps enough to make a living off of creator-owned work a feasible option. A lot of creators are taking that road, and I don’t blame them. And the runs they create on their own are as long if not longer than what they or their contemporaries have done at Marvel and DC. Erik Larsen has made a career out of Savage Dragon, as has Ed Brubaker in his work at Image. Jim Balent’s Tarot: Wtich of the Black Rose, for all its sillier qualities, is a 14-year-running title of which every issue has been drawn and written by one creator.

Another factor is strategy. As I said in my column about the trend of publishers putting out more and more number one issues, Marvel and DC are deeply interested in the appearance of change; of something being new. They’re looking for anything to draw a reader’s attention to a particular book. That could mean an issue number or it could mean shaking up a creative team (and then renumbering anyway). It’s increasingly becoming the standard modus operandi, particularly at Marvel, who’ve been successful in using changing creative teams to signal deliberate changes in the overall style and approach to their franchises.

A third factor is that cape comics publishing is very different today than it was in the long long ago. The sheer volume alone is astonishing — at least 52 periodicals a month from DC and a comparable amount from Marvel. A quality run may lose some prestige in such a crowded marketplace, but the nature of that marketplace can itself be injurious to such a run. What I’m talking about are “crossover events,” where multiple books — maybe even entire lines — can be affected by the course of one. A writer’s work can be held up or otherwise disturbed by their character or title being pulled into an event or other editorial edict — which from the outside appears to be what happened to Nightwing and Forever Evil. DC and Higgins announced a new status quo and artist for Nightwing — Brett Booth, who’d depict the hero’s adventures in his new home of Chicago — only for his identity to be revealed in the Forever Evil event, Booth to move on to other things after just three issues, and for Higgins to leave soon after. In such a climate, incentive for creating a long, sustained run is necessarily diminished, at least in creative terms.

The final factor I’ll mention is plain old creative differences. The language of Kyle Higgins’ farewell missive to Nightwing on Facebook suggests the writer didn’t choose to leave the book he’d written for nearly three years. Matt Fraction and Marvel recently parted ways on Inhumans before that book even came out. J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman left Batwoman after a very public spat over the title character getting married. In 2012, Rob Liefeld took DC to task on Twitter for editorial interference when he left the books he was writing. I could list off more examples. Creative differences are nothing new, and they may not be happening more than they did in the past, but they’re certainly being aired out in public a lot more.

With that in mind, we certainly hear more about writers leaving books with increasing regularity, but is the turnover actually greater than it’s been in the past, or is it just a matter of perception? Look at Roy Thomas’ Wikipedia page. With the exception of a 10-year run on Conan, the legendary and prolific writer was actually never on any other title for more than two years at a time. Likewise the great Gerry Conway spent about eight years on Justice League of America, but never on anything else for longer than three. Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, Steve Engleheart: their bibliographies all look the same in terms of length of runs.

Certain generations of comics readers remember their favorite runs as especially long, and the comics of their youth being particularly focused and author-driven. But the truth is that long runs have always been pretty special and fairly rare. Now, maybe the short runs are getting shorter. Thanks to sites like this and the presence of comics creators on social media, we’re plainly more aware of those runs’ endings and the behind-the-scenes action that informs those decisions. But it’s hard to really say what the quantifiable change has been, if anything. It’d take some kind of academic study to really crunch the numbers, but I suspect present reality isn’t all that different from the romanticized past.

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