(If you already read comics, you know all of this anyway. Let this serve as a warning to the curious.)

I’ve been reading Marvel and DC comics – ‘mainstream comics’, if you like – again for a few months now, I thought it was a good time to think about how things have changed since the last time I read them (the mid-90s) and since I first got bitten by their strangely addictive bug, back in ’85 or so.

Mainstream comics are a lot better now than in the 90s. Not difficult, as in the 90s they were generally ghastly, but I’d say that the overall quality of the mainstream now is as high as it’s ever been. Or perhaps I mean ‘competence’. There seems to be much less of the stark visual and verbal illiteracy which has always been a feature of comics – plots which make no sense, dialogue so tin-eared it might be from Oz, pictures where you simply can’t work out what’s going on. Comics now tend to be tightly-scripted, with sharp dialogue the norm, and even if the storytelling skills aren’t so great the art is generally attractive. They’re entertaining – I nearly always reach the end of an issue eager for more.

Superhero antics are still the currency of mainstream stories. But the boundaries of what writers do with them have expanded again – crime stuff, thriller stuff, comedy stuff, metaphysical stuff, as well as world-saving heroics and soapy business. The superhero’s usefulness as a comics device turns out to be greater than imagined even in the 80s. If you like superheroes, this is a good thing. If you don’t, you most likely won’t be converted.

And speaking of the converted – mainstream comics now are terribly incestuous. The mantra of ‘good stories’ hides a mire of insider references and tangled continuity. But the obsession with continuity qua continuity, the initiatory fervour of fandom, seems to have diminished. The mainstream now is a decadent culture which treats continuity as its plaything, not its master. If you get the jokes, if you like this or that take on a character, enjoy it while you can, someone different will be at the toybox soon. This results in a few marvellous comics – She-Hulk, for instance, stuffed with Marvel minutiae which it froths into a witty series about superhero law. Or Adam Strange, a high-energy space romp that acts as a grand tour of DC’s magnificent, mouldering sci-fi properties.

Those two comics have other things in common. They pack a lot of story into each issue. And they sell next to nothing, even by the truncated standards of the modern business. Monthly comics don’t sell much any more – 40-50,000 is a solidly popular series, 100,000 is a smash hit, 20,000 is on the edge of survival. With most series losing readers steadily as newer thrills catch their eye, it’s very rare for a new title to get to its 50th or 60th issue (still only a five year run). There are lots of reasons for this, rising prices being the most obvious – a new comic now costs three dollars. So you’d think, wouldn’t you, that publishers would try to attract readers by emphasising value for money and depth of content?

No. The price of increasing sophistication in comics tends to be decreasing content. ‘Decompression’ – telling a story slowly, lingering on minor scenes and wordless panels so as to notch up characterisation and tension – is in vogue and many, though by no means all, Marvel comics stick to it. (DC Comics tend still to give you an 80s/90s level of plot content per issue, though often their writing is less sharp.).

Last night I was reading a comic called Ultimate Nightmare, which has a strong set-up and builds tension nicely for its 80 or so pages. It’s very enjoyable. On an issue-by-issue basis, though, almost nothing happens. To have bought it as monthlies would so far have cost $12, and I think I would feel ripped off. Another comic by the same writer has the Fantastic Four going into the Negative Zone. Or rather, it has reached the end of two issues of the team preparing to go into the Negative Zone. The agonisingly slow build is designed to build a sense of awe and wonder, but as with any comics effect, the emotion is fleeting and the forty effortful pages spend in the lead-up is the equivalent of a domino topple.

To a returning fan like me this way of storytelling seems insane, like bands making concept albums and then releasing them one track at a time on CD singles. But the decompressed books don’t notably undersell the story-heavy ones. It seems faily clear that the comics market has bottomed out, with the people buying now dedicated fans of the format and affluent enough to afford a set number of comics each month. They will drop some titles to pick up others, but the overall size of the market won’t grow appreciably, and will shrink only as marriage, kids and death intervene. The definition of stagnation – but if you’re already in the fold, there’s a lot to keep you entertained.