On May 25, 2012, Wall Street Journal Columnist Tim Marchman angered a whole lot of people while reviewing “Leaping Tall Buildings,” Christopher Irving’s 240-page history of the American comic book industry.
No doubt the first person Marchman angered was Irving himself, given the fact that Marchman was tasked with penning a review of Irving’s work and failed to do so. In seventeen paragraphs, Marchman makes only fleeting references to Irving’s tome. Based solely on Marchman’s critique, a reader could not surmise the present themes or level of craft in Irving’s book, let alone whether or not anyone should actually read it. As a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, perhaps Marchman had more pressing concerns beyond writing book reviews for the Wall Street Journal. It doesn’t seem like Marchman even bothered to actually read the book he was supposed to be analyzing.
Because Marchman obviously had so little say about the book he was supposed to review, he dedicates the rest of his screed to chastising the modern comic book industry. I won’t pretend that the American comic book industry is beyond reproach, especially the Big Two publishers represented by Marvel and DC Comics. That said, Marchman should have at least brought something to the table besides the same tired rhetoric one could find on Internet message boards for more than a decade. The problem with this is that like Marchman’s review, much of the comic book nerd hate on the internet is generated by people who didn’t bother to read the books they are criticizing.
Marchman praises talented sequential auteurs Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware while decrying the inaccessibility of superhero comics with decades long storylines and laborious crossovers such as Marvel’s current WTF-inducing “Avengers vs. X-Men.” Like the oft-repeated “news story” that ‘comics aren’t just for kids anymore,’ maybe all of these ideas seem like relevant headline fodder for general audiences, but nothing Marchman says is news to folks who can tell you the difference between Marvel’s 616 Universe and Ultimate Universe versions of Spider-Man.
More importantly, the people who actually read comic books know that many of Marchman’s gripes are moot.
One of Marchman’s sticking points is the fact that while “Marvel’s The Avengers” has grossed more than half a billion dollars in the U.S. alone, sales of individual comic book issues are currently capped at 230,000 and seldom reach into the six digits. Considering that Marchman works as a journalist, one would assume he of all people would be well aware of the decline in sales for all forms of print media. Sales of newspapers continue to decline sharply while millions of Americans are updated on current events via cable TV and the Internet each day. This is more of a reflection of the public’s attitudes on reading than any supposed failures of the print journalism industry.
But Marchman doesn’t stop there. He also attempts to make the speculator-driven “Dutch tulip” sales craze of the ‘90s seem favorable to the current comic book sales climate. Sure, many comics in the ‘90s sold over one million copies each month, but not because the people who bought them were actually reading them. Consumers inflated sales by purchasing multiple copies these now worthless comics with their “#1 Issue!” debuts, holofoil covers, and mega events like the Death of Superman because of their supposed value.
While comics currently sell fewer issues these days, I would argue that more people are actually reading the books they buy because of the many creators who are now telling great stories. Here’s something Marchman could have said if he had bothered to read something before writing his article: Modern comics are actually better written and more superbly drawn than the books that nearly drowned the market 20 years ago.
A great example of the improved level of quality in today’s comics would be “Here Comes Daredevil,” a new take on Marvel’s blind, crime-fighting lawyer. Written by Mark Waid and drawn masterfully by Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera, the book marks a refreshing departure from the increasingly dark characters and storylines that emerged after the release of Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.” Waid’s Daredevil faces a life of turmoil as always, but he now copes with these perpetually chaotic forces that are beyond his control with a newfound lightness and positive attitude.
Waid is an industry veteran with more than his fair share of great comic book stories under his belt, but his work is currently being matched over at DC Comics by the new talent Scott Snyder, a writer who has rapidly made a name for himself with the work he has done on Batman. Snyder utilizes the Caped Crusader to explore untold histories of Gotham City, and elevates this urban hellhole as the book’s most important character.
Then of course there are good books out there by the creators Marchman specifically crapped on in his article as being “most responsible for the failure of the big publishers to take advantage of the public’s obvious fascination with men in capes.”
Brian Michael Bendis’ 12 year run on “Ultimate Spider-Man” is such an imaginative and nuanced reinvention of the wall-crawling avenger that it makes the upcoming movie reboot look stale by comparison. As for Grant Morrison, I will now avoid pulling a Marchman by talking about books I haven’t actually read. That said, the people who have acquainted themselves with Morrison’s work say nothing but good things.
Then there is the comic book author who received the greatest of Marchman’s insults – J. Michael Straczynski. Marchman’s slights against Staczynski are so hateful and dishonest in their severity that I am going to copy and paste it for you to read below:
Among the writers working on [“Before Watchmen”] is former He-Man scripter J. Michael Straczynski, who once penned a comic in which Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil. (This is the rough equivalent of having Z-movie director Uwe Boll film a studio-funded prequel to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”)
These comments are so nasty, they reveal one of two things: 1) Marchman knows nothing about writer Staczynski or his work. 2) Marchman knows nothing about filmmaker Uwe Boll and his work. I’ll get to Staczynski in a moment, but first I want to address Boll. Because the German born aut-tard embraces his status as one of the worst directors who ever lived, many critics use him as a punchline without having seen any of his movies from beginning to end. While I am sure Boll does not mind snagging the print coverage, I find this to be dishonest on the part of the critic. To trash someone and their work, you must know about that person’s work first-hand.
Having personally suffered through two Uwe Boll films, I can say with authority that while Marchman took a cheap shot at Staczynski for writing He-Man scripts when he was a young writer, the very worst episodes of He-Man are more masterfully written than the very best films made by Uwe Boll.
As for Straczysnki’s work on its own merits, he did in fact write a comic book wherein Spider-Man sells his marriage to the devil. This story sucked. But what’s also true is that Straczynski would be the first person to admit this. A simple Wikipedia search on the matter would have revealed that this storyline Marchman bashed Straczynski for writing was an editorial mandate forced upon the writer and that Straczynski even threatened to remove his name from the comics to no avail.
The “One More Day” storyline that Marchman is referring to is an example of Straczynski’s work during one of the most challenging episodes of the writer’s career. What makes Straczynski a great comic book creator is that he endured this challenge, and went on to tell some great stories within the medium of superhero comics. Unlike comic book legend Alan Moore, who has given up writing in lieu of a more lucrative career of bashing comic books in newspaper interviews, Straczynski continues to write and create. A recent example of Straczynski’s better work would be “Earth One Superman,” a series of long form graphic novels that depicts the life of a young Superman coping with a more media savvy and distrustful America.
During a brief Twitter war with Marchman, I actually challenged him to do something I don’t think he did one single time while reviewing “Leaping Tall Buildings” and read a book from beginning to end. I told him that if he read Straczynski’s “Earth One Superman” and didn’t like it, I would pay for it. I don’t necessarily blame him for declining.
Why would Marchman actually want to start reading something now?
 Seriously Marvel, what is up with “Avengers vs. X-Men”? First off, in issue #3, we see Captain America betray Wolverine, a total dick move despite the fact that Captain America hates dick moves as much as he loves the United States. Then in issue #4, Wolverine betrays current Dark Phoenix candidate Hope Summers to Captain America, the same guy who just betrayed Wolverine one issue ago. This crossover has more lame double-crosses than a horrible season of “Lost.”
 Many of whom had never even read a comic book beforehand.
 I can say with certainty that we are not buying these comics because they are worth more or even equal to what we paid for them.
 A great place to sample Snyder’s talents would be the hardcover “Batman: The Black Mirror,” a book that is so good, my wife who doesn’t normally read comics finished it before I had a chance to open it.
 Including the goofy holiday special wherein a couple of plucky children teach that ever-cranky Skeletor about The True Meaning of Christmas.