Comic Book Case Study: Why “Inferior 5” Failed

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how I felt reading “Inferior 5”

As stated in the title of this post, this is a comic book review..but also, a review of the entire idea of buying monthly pamphlet-styled comic books. You will hopefully understand why I felt the need to make such a referendum by the end of this post.

DC’s Inferior 5 is an originally a 12-issue mini-series (and we will revisit that little detail shortly) featuring two masters of the quirky comic book, Keith Giffen and Jeff Lemire, co-plotting the story. This title should have been the retro-cool quirkfest of my dreams, and yet the result was nearly incomprehensible and, I’m sorry to say, a bit ugly to look at as well.

THE PROBLEM WITH THE STORY: ASSUMES YOU ARE AN OLD-SCHOOL DC FAN

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To put a finer point on the point of this subhead: I’m not saying that every comic book that blatantly panders to the wistful nostalgia of the subset of the potential readership that the old-school elements of the publisher only cares about is necessarily a BAD thing.

I’m not saying that.

What I AM saying, however, is that there is a tendency to get narratively lazy when utilizing such an approach…ASSUMING that the characters and ideas tossed around in the story are not only understood by the reader without much exposition, but are deserving of immediate emotional resonance as well.

To fill you in (it’s called “exposition” and “context” and folks it’s IMPORTANT): Inferior Five was a short-lived DC series from the Sixties that seemed to be inspired by the popular misreading of the appeal of the campy Batman TV series of the time. So you had really broad strokes, here: wacky bumbling superheroes with names like Awkwardman, The Blimp and Dumb Bunny. While there seems to be a general blanket “hindsight is 20-20” rosy view about almost any previous retro DC property no matter how much it originally bombed…I’m just saying, maybe there shouldn’t be. Maybe some of them just sucked.

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2019’s Inferior 5 positioned itself as the champion of such obscure comic titles and characters, featuring not only a (barely recognizable) version of the original team but such venerable characters as Brother Power the Geek, the Tasmanian Devil (no, not that one, you woefully uninformed normie), and at least a passing mention of Kirby’s Dingbats of Danger Street.

But if all that wasn’t fan-servicey enough for the Reader On The Street, we also have the overarching plot of Inferior 5—rooted deeply in the late Eighties DC mega-crossover Giffen-plotted event “Invasion!” In fact, if you do not remember “Invasion!,” you as Reader On The Street should just screw off from reading Inferior 5 because you’re a normie and nobody cares about your money.

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But if all THAT wasn’t enough Fan Service for old-skool DC-heads…they have the actual DC Invasion! comic book as a plot-point in the comic. Bonus: a diatribe about how “dark” comics are these days, and how having “real world” stuff in it is just a drag. (We’ll unpack this prevalent point of view in certain fan circles—as well as defining what exactly the hated “real world” elements are that they have a problem about—at another time when I have had more coffee.)

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Now, I’m not totally against the “comic-within-a-comic” meta idea, as it was well explored in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man series. However, as is the case with bringing back and updating highly obscure comic book characters, this is a conceit that has to be done well. And it’s not done well here, with very poor exposition and seemingly almost no concern for filling in readers not familiar with the referenced previous material.

Then there is the art…

THE PROBLEM WITH THE ART: STYLES CLASHING

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Now: the esteemed Mr. Giffen, who also penciled Inferior 5, was one of my favorite “indy” artists of the 1980s—even though he was rendering for a decidedly mainstream, non-indy publishing company. Giffen’s abstract, cartoony-grotesque work in books like Ambush Bug were truly like modern art to my little tender eyes growing up.

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classic Keith Giffen in “Ambush Bug”

Why did this art not “translate” to Inferior 5? Was it the inker Michele Delecki? I don’t think it was Delecki, whose style compliments the basic texture and tone of Giffen’s work. The overly-saturated colors, on the other hand, were not a benefit to this type of style of art. You can’t place a Renaissance palette on a later Picasso, you know? It’s gonna just look weird and distracting. But I wonder if there is an overall mentality that such a mainstream comic book needs the heavy computer-color to sell. Oh wait, I used to work in the comics industry…there IS a mentality that such a mainstream comic book needs the heavy computer-color to sell. Right right right.

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over-saturated/render color is not an asset to Giffen’s work

But the bigger problem with Inferior 5’s art is that it seems to blend Lemire’s very distinct, “tonal” narrative pacing with Giffen’s more “Kirbyesque” bombastic feel…and it just doesn’t work.

It’s my belief that whatever incomprehensibility apparent in Inferior 5 would have made more sense had Lemire just wrote and drew the book himself. He has a poetic, diffuse style that would have instantly lent this story more weight. For contrast, read the Lemire scripted/drawn backups in Inferior 5 featuring the old Charlton character Peacemaker. Like the main feature, the Peacemaker serial features somewhat of a drawn-out, dreamlike, nebulous narrative. But this approach works when Lemire draws it because his poetic art meshes with that style.

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Jeff Lemire’s “Peacemaker” backup story: muuuuuch better!

And note: the colorist on the Peacemaker backups is not the hot-shot computer coloring house Hi-Fi, but the gentle thoughtful tones of the esteemed Jose Villarrubia. What a difference! (Not a knock on Hi-Fi, but again: you really have to match the colorist to the project.)

Time and time again I had been willing to buy Lemire’s new work, often with little-to-no background on the projects, simply based on the fact that he gives me a great story and art value for the money. Which brings me to…

THE PROBLEM WITH THE PRODUCT: TOO EXCLUSIVE AND TOO EXPENSIVE

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See, the new Inferior 5 is like super-highly relevant because “Dumb Bunny” is now a (still smoking hot) “tough chick” who picks on the nerdy guy (comic reader stand-in) who she SECRETLY LOOOOOVES because all smoking hot chicks secretly love the nerdy guys and that’s a TOTALLY new concept to geek-focused pop-culture of the past 25 years.

A driving force within mainstream comics in the last 20 years has been trading off Nostalgia. Actually, a driving force within mainstream comics in almost the last 40 years has been trading off Nostalgia, but at least in the Eighties it was largely competently done.

When I say “driving force,” I do not refer to some nebulous conspiracy theory I’ve scraped up from a glancing view at the Comics Internet and an ax to grind that is somewhere around the general environs of the chip on my shoulder.

**THIS WAS A LITERAL EDITORIAL POLICY WHEN I WORKED AT DC.**

Maybe not “policy” as in, officially typed on DC stationary and CC’d to the suits at Warner’s. But it was a “given.” It was a “given” that the main audience of these comics were largely aging white males. Sorry. That’s just the damn truth.

And while comics retail data would occasionally pass through our desks indicating that indeed, the main audience for our comics were largely aging white males…it really seemed to be this self-fulfilling prophecy. The retail stores at that time were overwhelmingly geared towards this demographic, pushing product strongly mirroring the demo. Attempts to break out of that mold and push into new markets were often ignored by Marketing and under-ordered by the stores themselves. Then these more “experimental” books would inevitably fail, and then be thrust in our faces as “proof” that only aging white males bought our books. (And then the suits at WB would complain that we were not putting out enough relevant and diverse material, and so we’d develop more some of said material, only to have it still not supported by Marketing and the retailers, and rinse and repeat this particular sadomasochistic editorial ritual.)

Looking at this all in 2020, it seemed like a suicidal business strategy. But you know…never underestimate the willingness for a group of people to choose metaphorical “death” over “evolution.”

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However, the parent company of DC—WB/AT&T and whatever else it is now—wants to make money. Not because of some deep-seated “love” for the comics themselves, but because they want to sell movies, TV shows and licensing. And purposely not cultivating a younger audience is kind of cross-purposes with that. So you have things now like DC’s “Young Animal” line…which is, big portions of it anyway, quite good. And you have their post-Vertigo Black Label “adult” line, which certainly has elements of fan-service in it, but appealing to a broader swath of the presumably DC Cinematic Universe-viewing market.

Inferior 5 ultimately fails because it fits into NONE of these publishing plans. Much like the unappealing scrappy band of “Stranger Things”-wannabes in the book that nobody cares about, this is a title struggling on the outskirts of a wasteland.

The last point I want to make (outside of noting that the only type of “geek girl” Giffen could think of drawing looks almost exactly like Velma from “Scooby Doo”) involves the cost of this comic book.

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Velma

Each issue of Inferior 5—either print or digital—costs $3.99. When this was originally a 12-issue mini-series, that meant a total investment on the part of the reader of $47.88, far more than an assumed (unlikely, at this point but who knows?) trade paperback would be.

Now, Inferior 5, two issues in, was suddenly cut from a 12-issue to a 6-issue mini-series. I would guess sales had something to do with that. Part of what that means is that the now highly-truncated series will probably be even more incomprehensible at the end, as the creative team/editor scrambles to adjust the story.

Regardless, I am now FOUR issues into Inferior 5…issues that I did not get as review copies, issues I did not pirate, but rather issues I spent $3.99 on a piece. (Actually, I had to backorder a couple issues from Midtown Comics—one of which was bumped up to $4.50 because God knows it’s such a collector’s item—so including shipping it all cost even more.)

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So I have now just invested at last $15.96 on a terrible series. Having officially given up on the title—and having written this post—these comics will now go into my local book-donation library. For upwards of $16, I could have bought a TPB of a comic book series that was great. I could have renewed a month of my now-expired Netflix subscription. I could have even kicked in a few extra bucks for my retirement.

As a reader…I am also now even less likely to consider buying monthly comics based on this disappointing experience.

BUT WHY DOES ANYTHING I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THIS EVEN MATTER?

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But I’m not the main desired demographic of the series, so why does it even matter? Even though I’m very well-versed in the era of comics history Inferior 5 refers to, have an appreciation for the “meta” type comic-within-a-comic narrative and have enjoyed the previous work of the main creative team…this title was not created or written for me. It does contain female characters, but very 2-dimensional versions of them (the Velma-esque asexual geek girl, the sexy tough girl and of course the sexy alien girl). It waxes nostalgic for the good ol’ days of comics, but those are days that deserve a bit more of critical lens (at least in my opinion).

However, in a series in which one of the issues contains not just one comic-styled double-page ad but TWO…are not mainstream comics like these just “filler” for the outside advertising material anyway? In which case…shouldn’t these boys just have their fun? Isn’t this like the run of Superman back-in-the-day right before “Crisis” rebooted everything…where they just did whatever-the-hell because it was all going to be wiped out anyway?

Does anybody with even a modicum of business savvy believe that the current system of monthly pamphlet-style comics selling for an upwards of $4+ a piece is viable outside of an aging nostalgia market? Or that the mass-market, faced with a choice between $3+ digital comics purchased within a clunky proprietary reader and free pirated comics, are going to overwhelmingly choose the former? Or, even more dire (and probably accurate)…that this same mass-market for the most part can’t even be bothered to access the illegal free stuff because they’re all watching Netflix, Disney Plus and CW superheroes?

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One comment

  1. I ordered this and hated it. I liked Giffen’s work in the eighties and nineties, but this was just a shadow of his former self. So blah.

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