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Why Impulse Sells
by Michael Hutchison

This is only my opinion and not intended to be some kind of doctoral thesis explaining the entire comic book market!

I remember being a little annoyed, upon reading my third or fourth issue of Impulse, that every month I had to wade through a paragraph box about Impulse being a kid who lives in a video game universe and Max Mercury being the Zen Master of Speed. Then I realized the brilliance of it. Who am I to begrudge a new reader the few sentences of information they require to appreciate the book?

Taking another look at Impulse, a book which I haven't collected from day one but find myself picking up "on a whim" more and more often, I have to say it is one of the most enjoyable books DC puts out. It may not be Watchmen, but unlike a lot of other books I rarely find myself regretting spending the couple bucks for it. My reasons bear a little introspection, as I find that they provide a good formula for many books out there.

Actually, "formula" is an important word to this discussion. Impulse is a book that thrives on the familiarity of its premise. Impulse is a young superhero-in-training (not out of a sense of social justice but merely in an attempt to rein in his tendency towards chaos) who is under the tutelage of Max Mercury, a more experienced speedster. Impulse has a high ratio of single issue stories and a low incident of subplots and story arcs. With few exceptions, the stories are so self-contained and the series so formulaic that you can enjoy any two issues in any order without looking at the cover numbers to make sure they're in sequence.

All of this flies in the face of our modern comic reader wisdom. Comic books USED to be like that when the comic book readers were about eight years old. But then the 1980s came along. Maturing comic readers demanded more intelligent comics with story arcs and sub-plots that took a year to develop, in turn requiring that readers become more and more faithful in their commitment to reading a title each and every month. This became particularly true as fans clamored for more and more character development; instead of stable situations, superheroes lived increasingly hectic soap opera lives.

And what of introductory blurbs? Those boxes on a splash page which introduced you to the character and filled you in on what you may need to know about the occurrences of the previous month? Suddenly, it became chic to find the most intelligent, oblique way to fill in the reader on what is going on by using bits of expository dialogue. Sometimes it would take up to half the issue to figure Zatanna out what's going on from the hints dropped here and there. Other times we were treated to such cumbersome bits of ingenuity as Zatanna taking an entire page and a half to lecture Firestorm about the events of the previous issue despite the fact that he'd seen the whole thing. (I'm not kidding! It happened in Justice League of America #229!)

Along with this came another development: namely, development! More than ever before, characters grew and changed and aged. If you didn't read a comic book for a year, it was unlikely that you could pick it up and recognize it as the same title it had been the year before.

For years, you could count on student Ronnie Raymond to call on Professor Stein to become the fused hero known as Firestorm, the Nuclear Man. Then John Ostrander took over the book. Ronnie's girlfriend finds out about his dual identity and betrays him. Their fellow student Cliff Carmichael is revealed as a psycho who tried to kill Ronnie; he later becomes the New Thinker. Stein and Ronnie use nuclear blackmail to try to end the Cold War and Stein dies of cancer. Ronnie joins with a Russian named Arkadin and neither of them controls Firestorm; instead, Firestorm becomes something of a blank slate. Then Ronnie quits college and goes to Africa as a peace worker, where Firestorm absorbs a local man and is transformed into a lion creature. Professor Stein turns up alive. THEN Firestorm becomes the fire elemental, with an all-new costume and existence; Ronnie, Arkadin and Stein are permanently fused. Finally, Ronnie and Arkadin are removed from the equation.

At no point in Ostrander's run can you miss more than a couple issues and hope to understand what's going on when you come back.

Well, isn't that a good thing? After all, you want readers to pick up each and every issue, right? If you can "take it or leave it" every month, a book's sales will be uneven, right? A book that requires a commitment is going to sell better.

Not in my opinion! No one likes being forced to buy something. Just as a matter of creative pride, would you rather have people buy every issue of your book because it's consistently enjoyable or because they must in order to understand what's going on?

The Superman books of the 1990s are a great example. After John Byrne revamped Superman in 1986, there followed two years of highly refreshing stories. Superman, the primary title, was a well-written series of stories reintroducing the classic villains and getting reacquainted with the Man of Steel. Action Comics became an equally fun team-up title. Adventures of Superman was a moodier title written by Marv Wolfman, and it was good but not AS good. Catherine Grant, Jerry White, Jose Delgado/Gangbuster and Qurac all seemed to get as much attention as the Man of Tomorrow did. Initially, these three titles were not interrelated; you could subscribe to any one title and ignore the others.

Within a year after John Byrne left the books, the Superman titles began growing more and more intertwined…to the point that they eventually became one book published 52-weeks-a-year. Subscribing to just one title would leave you pretty clueless every month. And shortly after that, the events began. The Superman formula was smashed, as Superman's life became an endless tumult. Readers coming back to the title after a hiatus could not depend on Clark to be working at the Daily Planet or for the Planet to even be functioning anymore.

I recently tried to pick up an issue of Superman (having bought only a smattering since 1994) and I didn't recognize a thing. The Daily Planet's gone, Superman is involved in this super-fascist plotline…and there were pages and pages focusing on really minor, uninteresting character developments such as Lucy Lane having a child out of wedlock with Ron Troupe (if they're married, I apologize, but it didn't seem that way to me). I didn't even know she'd stopped dating Jimmy Olson!

"But Michael!" you might object, "what do you expect if you don't read it regularly? Character development is a sign of depth in a book."

Maybe so. But the Superman titles long ago went the way of a soap opera, in that they're really lame but you can't miss an episode. Why do you think the "Adventures" comics (by which I mean the animated series comic books) have such a strong following amongst adult readers capable of reading much more mature works? Whilst readers of the "true" Superman books have to put up with sales gimmicks like Bluperman and tedious subplots about the Daily Planet's Rush Limbaugh parody's daughter dating a monster and Lori Lemaris getting legs, I can pick up any issue of "Superman Adventures" and find a remarkably strong story focusing on Superman. Furthermore, I don't feel this obligation to pick up every single back issue and every one to follow. Superman is always Clark Kent and he always works at the Daily Planet with the usual co-workers. Ironically, because this improves my reading experience, I'll probably look at the book and think to myself, "That book is never a waste of $2!" and pick it up! Then I'll look at the Superman books which want to use a marketing event to get me hooked to their neverending sub-par saga …and wisely decide to avoid a colossal financial commitment.

Impulse, Superman Adventures, Batman Adventures (or whatever the current title) and other books such as Young Justice eschew laborious subplots, tumultuous personal lives and boring supporting characters. Their premise is reliable, their mood is fun and, should you be unfamiliar with the characters, some of them will even take the colossal effort to introduce you to them.

Finally, I should mention that the latest issue (#48) of Impulse, which I picked up on a whim, is probably the funniest thing I've read in a long time!

All characters are ™ DC Comics
This column is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.
All artwork is © 1999 by their respective artists.