2010: The year we make contact*
* That title has nothing to do with the content of the post, by the way. I just wanted to be one of the first nerds to reference a 25-year-old Roy Scheider movie. But not the first, unfortunately – Damn you, Mike Sterling!
So, it’s a new year. Let’s talk comics. What’s going on?
I’ve been reading a lot of grumpiness about comics these days. It began when I read Tim Callahan’s and Chad Nevett’s two-part discussion at the beginning of December. They were discussing their lack of excitement about comics, focusing mainly on the lack of quality of mainstream superhero comics. Then, a few days ago, I read Abhay’s wonderfully convoluted post about Blue Beetle, which, as is his wont, tends to wander around a bit, until he gets to the point where he writes he wasn’t too excited about comics in 2009. He kindly provides links to others who feel similarly: David Brothers and Geoff Klock, and David linked to Cheryl Lynn. Everyone’s grumpy!
Well, except me. Comics are too awesome for that. What these people are talking about is, as I mentioned above, mainstream superhero comics. Well, I don’t think it’s too shocking to say that superhero comics are increasingly lame, mainly because it’s the kind of thing people say all the time. Wait, superhero comics are all about maintaining a trademark? Really? Wow. That’s news. Wait, event comics tend to suck? Really? Wow. And here I thought “Armageddon 2001″ sucked two decades ago. I guess I was wrong. Saying that mainstream superhero comics suck is nothing new. (To be fair, many commenters point this out at the posts. I’m not really breaking new ground here.)
But what’s the point of it all? Why bother complaining? Are people that invested in, say, Hal Jordan that if they think Blackest Night sucks their life has no meaning? I mean, you might think another writer will take over Green Lantern eventually (unless Geoff Johns has made some sort of pact with Satan to live and therefore write the book forever) and then you can buy the book again, right? Many of the people linked to above are unashamed Whorrisons and bemoan the lack of really transcendant superhero work from the God of All Comics this year. Well, Seaguy was better than any superhero work he did this year. And this year will bring us Joe the Barbarian. So who cares if he gets stuck with Philip Tan on Batman and Robin? Even with Quitely or Cameron Stewart, it’s going to be one of his lesser works. Sorry, but it is.
I don’t know about you, but every year I’m stunned by the quality of comics being produced. I’ve long been “over” superheroes, not to the point where I don’t buy superhero comics, but to the point where it doesn’t bother me if they suck. I still love The Incredible Hercules, but if it starts to suck, I’ll drop it and move on. Who cares? I’ll still have, what, almost 30 issues of wonderful comics to read. I’m not “disappointed” by mainstream superhero comics because I don’t expect too much from them in the first place. Why any of these bloggers read Infinite Crisis or House of M or Civil War or Secret Invasion or, now, Siege in the first place is beyond me. Chad and Tim make the point that they review comics for the Mothership, and that’s fine, but why anyone would spend money on them if they’re sure they’re going to suck makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re burned out by superhero comics, find something else to read, for crying out loud! I know these bloggers do read other things, but why don’t they write about how awesome those things are instead of whining about superhero books? Yes, superhero books drive the market, but they haven’t always and don’t have to in the future. Comics are too entrenched for that. I wonder if it gets back to pining for a childhood experience, when superhero comics were thrilling mainly because you were a kid. Someone makes the point in the comments of Klock’s post that the fact that we have such erudite bloggers writing about superhero comics has raised the bar regarding what content we expect from them. That’s a great point. But if superhero comics aren’t rising to the level of discourse that is published about them, perhaps it’s time for those erudite bloggers to ignore them. Put away childish things, so to speak. Just because superhero comics 20 or 30 or 40 years ago thrilled you doesn’t mean that they will today. And there’s no reason they should. I enjoy some superhero books, but what really thrills me these days are other kinds of comics. I just reviewed Footnotes in Gaza, which is a thrilling reading experience with nary a superhero in sight (and a somewhat depressing subject matter, so perhaps “thrilling” isn’t a good word, but I mean “thrilling” in the sense that I was amazed reading how Sacco tells the story). There are a lot of books like that. I know people are probably sick of me raving about Phonogram, but I don’t care. It’s thrilling to read an issue. Atomic Robo is thrilling. Atomika is thrilling. Zorro is thrilling. Chew is thrilling. Elephantmen is thrilling. Northlanders is thrilling. Scalped is thrilling. Gødland is thrilling. I could go on and on. And those are just series. The quality of stand-alone, single-volume graphic novels is stunning as well. Who cares if Norman Osborn is a terrorist running a government agency or if Geoff Johns’ idea of mature comics is necrophilia jokes? What-the-fuck-ever, say I.
So I’m excited about 2010, but not because Norman Osborn is going to get his comeuppance or because DC (shockingly!) is bringing Bruce Wayne back. Wow, you think? I’m excited because it’s never been easier to get comics out to people (even if you can’t get it distributed by Diamond) and more and more people are making comics. I get the complaints by some that it’s never been more difficult for non-Big Two comics to make money and therefore Matt Fraction is wasting his time on Invincible Iron Man while Casanova lies comatose (and I’m not talking about the quality of Invincible Iron Man, because I don’t read it, but I have to believe that his work on Casanova will be, in the long run, more “important” than his work on a property), and I’m a bit chuffed we’ll probably never see a new series of Phonogram, but there’s still plenty of excellent stuff out there.
What can we expect from the year? I don’t really know, of course. People have been predicting the death of comics for decades, but that’s a bit silly. Comics aren’t going anywhere. People have been predicting the death of the direct market almost since it began, and that’s also a bit silly, although I wonder if it’s dying, just by very slow degrees. DC and Marvel aren’t going anywhere, mainly because their properties are too valuable to a Hollywood that seems to have no interest in writing original stuff. According to news reports, Disney’s acquisition of Marvel means we’ll see more movies starring B-list characters (are you ready for Justin Long as NOVA?!?!?!?!?), so Joey Q should be able to buy many more baseball caps to wear backward in the near future. But it’s no secret that DC and Marvel are hemorraghing readers, and they probably ought to do something about that. DC and Marvel are not run by businessmen, they’re run by fans, and that’s never a good model. And their marketing sucks. The Big Two have never tapped a vast female audience, and they’ve made it so new readers can’t really get into their books. If DC and Marvel continue to ignore those two segments of their readership, they’ll keep losing readers. Again, I doubt if they’ll ever go away, but just from anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from talking to retailers, things are a bit dire. But who really knows. Again, from what I’ve heard, Image is kind of a mess, too, at least in terms of getting their books out on time. I have no idea what the deal is with that – Image is all about creator ownership, so presumably some fault must fall to the creators being slow, but there also seems to be cash-flow problems at Image, too. I have no real evidence for this, so don’t read too much into it, but again, from speaking to retailers, Image’s output has shrunk this year. I don’t know why, but that depresses me more than the shittiness of mainstrem superhero comics, because Image often puts out great comics.
However, I would argue that the state of the comics medium has never been better. Webcomics are flourishing, even if I don’t read them (sorry, webcomics). Publishers come and go, but some of the smaller ones keep keeping on with no end in sight. It’s easier than ever to self-publish, even if the costs are prohibitive. The Internet has opened up the possibilities of distribution, bypassing Diamond’s monopoly and allowing consumers to buy stuff directly from the creators. Comics are even seen as “legitimate” by the mainstream press – I’ve never been one to whine because nobody respects comics, because it’s not that important, but it’s still kind of cool to see comics covered in newspapers without a caveat of “Yes, it’s a comic, but it’s still really good!” Comics are still ghettoized in bookstores, but I wonder how long that will last before they’re simply moved into the sections where the “real” books are – volumes of Criminal in mystery/crime, for instance, rather than stacked next to Infinite Crisis. Even now at Barnes & Noble, superhero books are separated out from the more “indy” comics – putting the comics into their specific genres with the other books seems the next logical step.
I’ve always tried to be extremely positive about comics, mainly because I don’t get books for free and so I only buy books I’m fairly certain I’m going to like. It doesn’t always work out that way, but as much fun it is to savage an issue of Justice League, it’s not worth the three or four dollars to do it. I don’t have the time nor the energy to rip comics I don’t like. I do, however, have the time and energy to praise the books I like. Those grumpy bloggers I referenced above have a point, but a lot of mainstream superhero comics have always been shit. I dare you to go back and re-read some shitty comic from the 1970s or 1980s and try to take your childhood nostalgia out of the equation. I devoured the Todd McFarlane run on Amazing Spider-Man, and when I went back and re-read them a few years ago, I was struck by just how shitty they were. No, Norman Osborn didn’t boink Gwen Stacy or anything, but they still weren’t very good. The lack of maturity in supposedly “mature” superhero comics are what rub many people the wrong way, but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of older superhero comics, which didn’t aspire to maturity, were pretty crappy. But that’s okay – they did their job for some readers. Maybe the superhero comics today are doing the job for some readers … just not the readers who blog about them. Maybe I’m just an idiot. It has been pointed out that I like a lot of comics that everyone “knows” are “bad,” but if liking Vengeance of the Moon Knight is wrong, I don’t want to be right! I know that I like some stuff that smarter people hate, and I know I hate some things that smarter people like. I read some blogs about books I’ve read and shake my head in amazement that the reviewer thought of those things while reading it, because I completely missed it. It’s often very impressive (no, I’m not being sarcastic). Oh well. That’s why we’re all individuals!
My point, of course, is that comics are in good shape. Superhero comics, for whatever reason, might not be, but maybe, just maybe, we’re finally seeing a shift from superhero books being the dominant genre. There’s no reason why they have to remain so. Obviously, it’s not going to happen this year or maybe not even this decade. But the democratization of comics means that there are far more choices than there used to be. And that’s nothing but cool.
So let’s rejoice! It’s the new year! Comics rule!