Columnist Wayne Rée shares his discovery of comic books, from his start as a super-hero fan to his evolution into a believer of the power of the art form of comics.
I love going to the movies. Always have. I’m not a scholar of fine cinema or revolutionary filmmaking. I know a thing or two, sure, but at the end of the day, I just like catching a flick with friends and having a good time.
Iron Man 3’s opening in just a few weeks, so it seemed only right to talk a little about that love for moviegoing. After all, my journey, man, wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about comic films – specifically superhero films, for two reasons.
Comic films in general means a pretty broad list to cover. We’re talking everything from Ghost World to Dredd here. But superhero films? That’s a more specific subset. And, more importantly, there’s an emotional connection I have with superhero films that goes deeper than other comic films.
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
That connection started when I was a kid, naturally. Anyone from my generation will tell you that the ’80s were a golden age for genre films. If you were a fantasy fan, you had Princess Bride. If you loved sci-fi, you had Blade Runner. And if you loved superheroes, you had Tim Burton’s Batman.
Yeah, I’d seen Richard Donner’s Superman, but Batman? Hoo boy. That was a different ball game altogether. And for the next half of a decade, the Batman films were the standard by which superhero flicks were measured. Hell, I can still unapologetically dig Batman Forever. Of course, to be fair, there were all that many superhero films out there anyway. Which is why, when Batman & Robin came out, I was devastated.
It was disappointing, simply because it seemed like this marriage of two of my favourite things was coming to an end. You got to understand: This was a film so bad that George Clooney eventually apologised for it and Joel Schumacher (the man who helmed easily one of my favourite vampire flicks of all time) practically faded from the spotlight.
As far as I was concerned, that was it for superhero movies. And then Wesley Snipes came along.
“I was born ready, mother—”
I’ve pointed out before that I’ve always been a Marvel guy. So, when Blade hit the big screen, you’d think I was ecstatic. But I wasn’t. Well, not initially. At first, I just couldn’t believe that the character that Wesley Snipes so perfectly brought to the screen was the same dude with the goofy 70s shades from the comics.
But it was, and after I got over that disbelief, I was all in, baby. I mean, come on. It was a Marvel character, no matter how obscure, that was translated into a genuinely kick-ass film.
The best thing about Blade, however, wasn’t just that it was an awesome film; it was a precursor to even more superhero films. Which made me happy as can be… for a little while anyway. That marriage of my loves was back, sure, but it was a marriage that was riddled with problems.
Quantity and quality
A glut of superhero films was released in the decade or so after Blade. But for every X-Men 2, there was an Elektra. Sure, I was glad to have these larger-than-life characters back on screen, but was the excitement of seeing Spidey swing through New York worth the awkward scripts that came along with Raimi’s web-slinging trilogy?
Pretty soon, I’d kind of had it. It actually felt worse than the this-is-over sensation that came with Batman & Robin. If we’re going to use the matrimonial analogy again, it became a loveless marriage. It just wasn’t exciting anymore.
What it needed was a second honeymoon. (I’ve totally lost control of this analogy, haven’t I?)
The Dark Knight Returns
And lo and behold, just like in the ’80s, Batman heralded a new era of superhero films with the aptly named Batman Begins. But they were different this time. It seemed like the one good thing that came out of that glut was that studios were learning that they couldn’t get away with releasing substandard films for our favourite colourful characters.
Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, and eventually Joss Whedon were names that were starting to get attached to these movies. Directors that carried weight, not just with your average moviegoer, but with us nerds and geeks too. Sure, we had Green Lantern, but crappy superhero films were comparatively fewer and farther between.
The new golden age
Last year, when I sat and watched Avengers for the first time, I swear to you, I was nearly moved to tears. Hell, I still get a little misty-eyed every time I hear Alan Silverstri’s theme from the show. Can you blame me though? For the first time since Burton’s Batman, I’m looking forward to watching superhero films regularly again.
Y’know… just catching a flick with friends and having a good time
Wayne Rée’s been writing professionally for about ten years. He’s worked in everything from advertising to publishing, and was even part of the team that created Singapore’s very first tattoo magazine. He dabbles in screenwriting and photography, travels way too much, and is currently putting together his very first short story collection. He blogs about his upcoming book, storytelling and other things at http://waynereewrites.com.
Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
If you know me, you know I don’t read a lot of superhero comics these days. Of course, I used to read ONLY superhero comics. Most of us who grew up on comics in the last few decades probably know what I mean. I was strictly a “Make Mine Marvel” guy for most of my childhood, only getting deep into DC post-Crisis. It was an important and magical experience, to know a full pantheon of heroes, gods, monsters, strange worlds, other realms, quests, visions…it was a unique opportunity for the 20th century. Sure, every culture ever had its religions, filled with all of its figures, places and events. But none which were created so recently, so freshly and relevantly. Modern printing allowed for tales to be disseminated as never before, not only textually but graphically, giving us perhaps as many far-out tales of battles and adventures in a few years as all the carved hieroglyphics of an entire dynasty. And there we all were, common people able to read, with easy access to experience vast mythology. I always feel pity when I think of those who passed by the so-called “universes” of the Superman or Fantastic Four variety. It’s a very special thing.
Often I consider that so many comics fans in America are really just fans of a particular mythology, or perhaps a few mythologies (think titles like Hellboy or Savage Dragon). For me, being a true comics devotee means not limiting yourself to one type of comic book experience – in fact, not limiting yourself at all, at least from overall genres and styles (naturally, within each, there will be varying degrees of quality). So why do I limit myself from superhero comics? I mean, if I take my own advice, then surely, I should be giving the current titles more of my time, right?
I can tell you why I don’t read MOST superhero comics that I used to read. The obvious: how many decent stories does any character really have? What can you possibly read that has not been written so many thousands of times over the past seven plus decades? Of course the answer is: not much. At least, not much if you stick to continuity. The absurdity of trying to pretend that figures like Batman and Spider-Man are not both well over the hill is evident in the industry practices of rehashed gimmickry and slight variations. One hero is dead (but always comes back to life). Another has some experience which “changes everything” even if it’s only a slight variation on a storyline from thirty years ago. And on top of that, somebody has to manage an ever more complex, more populated mythos which requires the preservation of all concurrent storylines, across dozens of monthly publications, for endless years, and all to meet the demands of shareholders. Gone are the days when these legacy characters were the product of visionaries, hungry not just for expression, but for money to put food on the table. The commercial product has been fully pried from the risk-taking art form that started it all. Yes, of course, there are the exceptions to the rule, but I don’t know how much I care to seek them. They are too few, too meager. I don’t put any blame on the creators working in the genre right now. First of all, it’s by far the most lucrative. And by and large, the folks behind the work are true fans. Getting the chance to write and draw that character you grew up with and getting the chance to add your stamp to the legacy must be very appealing indeed. But it’s not working for me, and I often wonder why it works for anybody. How many “reboots” before you finally get sick of reboots? How many perfectly predictable resurrections before you realize, continuity has lost all meaning?
Fortunately, I have found some remedies for myself to fill these needs. First of all, I use the time machine. I’ve been jumping into all of the old stuff I never read. DC has an excellent line of affordable trade collections of the original comics from their core pantheon called DC Chronicles. Way cheaper than the hardback DC Archives collections (and printed on pulp, which I find far cooler), I have been digging in to Superman, Batman and Green Lantern, all in the order they appeared in titles like Action and Detective and DC Showcase. Sure, I’ve read a lot of this stuff, one-offs in reprints and such, but this completist line allows me to see ALL of it from the start, a real history project where you can see the more unfettered creators lay down the genesis of the legacy titles. Marvel Masterworks is another great option, but their trade paperbacks are not as competitively priced, and never on pulp (damn!). But that’s all you’ve got for right now, and all that awesome history is there too, from Fantastic Four to Iron Fist and just about everything from Marvel’s Silver Age. And I’ll sometimes nibble at “alternate reality” stories, tales of the characters outside of the continuity like Warren Ellis’ Old Man Logan storyline or DC’s retired Elseworlds imprint. Unfortunately, entire reboots like the Ultimate universe in Marvel or The New 52 are subject to the same robust brand management interference which those other examples of limited series are put through. And as such, are plagued by the same afflictions.
And so I seek superheroes in other places besides DC and Marvel. Recently, I burned through Mark Waid’s Irredeemable series with great relish. Waid took the 20th century archetypes, offering instant recognizability (but with no TM infringement), and ran with a tale that brand managers at the big corporate publishers could never allow, including closure. (It helps that besides having an original story, Waid also has his own publishing house, BOOM! to be as free as he wants to be.) Marvel uber-author Ed Brubaker played his own games with his Incognito series (limited though it was, and on Marvel’s Icon imprint, to their credit). The aforementioned Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen is another excellent example of a guy giving us old-fashioned superhero fun without the expense of convoluted continuity (even though the title is getting long in the tooth itself!). I could mention more and more, but you get the idea – it’s not superheroes I have a problem with, it’s just the idea of a market dominated by this single genre (Marvel and DC run 70% of the North American market) and the idea that despite the inherent quality control issues when churning out so much pulp (or whatever slick paper is) carrying such intense corporate pressure (the far more profitable movie, video game, and toy branches of Time Warner and Disney depend on the publishing arms), the audience pushes most of its money on this heavily trod-upon ground. I wish more of you would venture out to discover humor, history, horror, high art, human dramas and so on, just like you do on TV and at the movies. But that’s just a dreamer’s lament. And I’ll be honest with you. I want to keep getting new stories from the same old characters. And I do. Just not entirely in comics.
Sadly, I nowadays get most of my Marvel/DC superhero action not through comics, but on TV. For the last twenty odd years or so, DC in particular has offered wonderful superhero mythology, starting with Batman: The Animated Series followed closely by Superman: The Animated Series which, following this continuity strictly or not, smoothly transitioned into Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Here you could feel the freedom of the creators. They were given far more leeway with the legacy characters. And even after a series ended, new series could create a new vision with its own angle. You can see this in such diverse shows as The Batman, Batman: Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series. I don’t love and watch ALL of these shows, but EVERY superhero fan is bound to love one or more of them. Marvel doesn’t have quite as long of a track record with high-quality shows, but of late, we’ve seen outstanding efforts with shows like Wolverine and the X-Men, Iron Man Armored Adventures, Spectacular Spider-Man, The Super Hero Squad Show, Ultimate Spider-Man, and particularly with Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. This show, like the Justice League run and the current Young Justice offers just the right blend of childish escapism, adult themes (but not TOO adult), long episodic tales, fights and violence (but not TOO violent) mixed with healthy, respectful nods to works new and old from the source material. It is ironic that in animation – a far more expensive process than comic book publishing, requiring teams of dozens rather than perhaps 10 people (sometimes just ONE) – there seems to be a lot more room to move for talented storytellers to play with the standard bearers of the legacy books. And it’s not just freedom for them, its freedom for me, the audience, who can enjoy new tales of old friends without getting bored, still surprised from time to time, able to see these tales in fresh places where you can feel a far more steady creative control, for good or ill (again, I do NOT love all of those animated shows, but I sure do love more than a few).
Which brings me to this final bummer: I don’t like writing about TV in this column. I want to write about comics. And that means writing about something other than superheroes. But at least now you know why. And maybe somebody in the right place will take it to heart. I interviewed Stephen Christy, editor-in-chief of Archaia Entertainment, at Comic-Con a few years back for the Dig Comics project. I asked him the same thing I asked all the publishers I talked to: if you were god and could run DC and Marvel, what would you do? His answer stuck with me, and I paraphrase: “I would kill all the titles, except about 12-15 of the core books, assign top creators to those and limit the output.” He may have a point. After all, there’s a hell of a lot to pretend you can manage in one continuity without a lot of not so awesome comics. I would combine that effort with killing all continuity periodically and maybe give some creators a chance to take the characters for their own ride, rather than tack their decisions to a committee. And if you try to make your new continuity too close to your old one, you’ll lose. If you are keen on continuing to publish 50 or more titles, how about letting multiple continuities run at once? Let the market decide which one it likes. And if one falls out of favor, save the space for a new subset of creators. But do something besides the same old tricks, at least if you want to see my money again.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
For a special weekly series during the month of June, guest columnist Dane Hill shares his experiences as a gay comics reader and the power of being represented. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.
There are some institutions that have come to represent the ideal way of life in our country. Cultural heritages that are recognized the world over as “All-American”: Baseball. Apple pie. Ford. Cowboys. Hollywood. Within the comic industry, that honor belongs to Archie Comics. For 70 years, they have been the “Middle America” of comicbookdom, never wavering from their small town style of stories, seemingly stunted since the ’50s in their business model. If you wanted an old-fashioned story deemed safe for the kids, you visited the townsfolk of Riverdale, where light-hearted humor was a mere chocolate malt away.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less about Archie and the Gang growing up. As All-American as I came across, to me, Archie was simply that bland out-dated line of kiddie books meant for the older generation of a bygone era. I had read one, maybe two, issues in my entire lifetime. Riverdale was just too saccharine for my tastes. I didn’t get the appeal. Did you have to be in your 60s to appreciate that “gee golly” humor? Relevance certainly seemed to have passed it by long long ago. No, my heart belonged to the spandexed superheroes battling through the modern world, thank you very much.
Little did I know, however, the changes that were going on behind the scenes the past couple years. In early 2010, Archie began dating black bandmate Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats. Not much odd about that you might think. Except that it was the first time an inter-racial relationship had been depicted with Archie. Forty-three years after the Supreme Court struck down miscegenation laws, the company finally felt it safe enough to test the waters with its readers. Did the editors debate putting out such a storyline for several decades, or was it a spontaneous idea cooked up in a meeting mere months before? Whatever the case may be, it would turn out to be the first indication of bigger and more daring things to come from the industry’s most conservative publisher. Still, Archie was not on my radar yet.
Truth be told, around this time, I was also burnt out on the event books being churned out by Marvel and DC Comics one after another. Most titles came across as money grabs. For the first time in a decade or two, I felt my passion for the medium begin to ebb. Even the gay characters that were popping up here and there were not holding my interest any longer. The gay side of their storylines didn’t have any teeth. As progressive as the various publishers were becoming, they all still seemed to be playing their hands a bit safe.
Around early summer of 2010, in a random blog interview, Archie artist Dan Parent would casually confirm that they too had plans to bring an openly gay character to their line. Barely newsworthy for any other company, this on the other hand was Archie Comics making the announcement for God’s sake. The news exploded overnight. How do you reconcile 1950s doowap and poodle skirts with the idea of homosexuality? It would be like your grandfather announcing plans to marry a 20-year-old. And that 20-year-old just so happened to be another man. The brain just has a hard time going there.
Parent’s announcement and the ensuing media hoopla grabbed my attention like a bonfire in the night. I held a cynical curiosity of the train wreck that was undoubtedly coming, visions of another Rawhide Kid-caliber disaster in mind. But, you know, it was cute they were trying. Good for them.
And so it came, in September 2010, Veronica #202 was released, and the world was introduced to gay Kevin Keller. I was expecting an uninspired stereotype. What I got was a slam dunk debut in every way. After reading the issue, all I could think was… how in the $%@& did Archie Comics come up with the most relatable and inspiring gay character in comics?!? My second thought was… when, if ever, would we see Kevin again?? I made a deal with the Devil that I would give up all my remaining Marvel books if Kevin’s debut would be popular enough to warrant further stories. Boy, did He deliver! (And boy, do I miss my Marvel! Or not. I totally went back on my word within a month. What! I’m only human.) Kevin’s debut set records for the company, and he quickly became their most popular new character in years.
As I said, the character was a revelation. In one single issue, I fell in love with the Archie universe. I suddenly got it – the appeal, the entire 70-year history, its newfound relevance unfolded before me like a map of Treasure Island, where X marked the spot on Kevin.
So what made Kevin’s debut so special? You might say the fact that the reveal wasn’t special made it special. He was that every day high school student who just so happened to be gay. The issue received universal praise in its nonchalant depiction of being gay. No angst or coming out drama. The fact that he was gay was a complete non-issue to the folks of Riverdale, its significance merely to be used as a ploy in Jughead’s ever on-going battle of wits with clueless yet love-struck Veronica of Kevin. No stereotypes. No controversy. Just a kid moving to a new town where everyone is welcomed, and oh by the way, just happened to be gay. The subtlety was a master stroke by Parent and for the publisher. The story immediately sold out and resulted in the company’s first ever second printing of an issue in its 70-year history. The character has since become one of the company’s most high-profile characters. It was also the final indication needed, you might say, that being gay in America was at last accepted.
And yet, Archie did not just stop with the character’s introduction. Oh no. Not resting on their laurels, in the year that followed, they went after the hot topics defining today’s debate on the subject, and gave it the ol’ Riverdale spin: Gays in the military. Gay marriage. Even combining together in a single issue of Life With Archie #16 a gay marriage between inter-racial military men. You could almost hear the publisher daring the conservative right to protest the company. The issue created a firestorm of attention, and subsequently sold out within days.
Meanwhile, after a trial mini-series, Keller proved popular enough to warrant his own regular series, which debuted this year.
With essentially no backlash, tons of media attention and critical praise, and heavy sales, it was only a matter of time before Marvel and DC stepped up their efforts in gay visibility. While they may have laid the foundation for that visibility the past number of years, Archie Comics grabbed the bull by the horns and has led the way with bold risky storylines, including a gay marriage in the midst of a national debate, a stance on DADT prior to its repeal, etc. For a company that on paper should be most concerned about what Middle America thinks of its lily white Americana image, its defiant integrity in the face of profit risk of late is perhaps the single most unexpected development in the industry the past several years. It’s a remarkable stance for any true blue American company to take, let alone one aimed towards kids.
Is it any wonder that Marvel is now proceeding with Northstar’s own marriage 9 months after Kevin’s gay marriage was announced? Is it coincidence that after seven years, Wiccan and Hulkling of Young Avengers are finally shown to kiss? Was it always planned that DC would re-introduce one of its oldest characters from the ’40s as gay, even after saying last year that no pre-existing characters would be turned gay? Even the rebooted Godzilla series from IDW Publishing introduced a new hero (enemy?) seeking revenge against the monster for destroying his gay wedding, killing his fiance. Archie’s newfound approach to storytelling has suddenly trailblazed the way for the industry.
So, what might the future hold for gays in comics? Expect to see a continual expansion of different gay characters – heroes, villains and side characters. There will be less trepidation with showing intimacy, and less hesitancy to treat them with kid gloves. Perhaps a gay sidekick to a major hero such as Batman or Captain America, or a gay disciple to a major villain such as Joker or Kingpin. Perhaps one of the plethora of gods will come out. Although Hercules’s sexual fluidity was hinted at by Marvel recently. Perhaps an all-gay super-team. Or maybe the child of a major character will be gay. I’d like to see a story exploring why homosexuality exists, such as a form of population control, or the “gay uncle” theory where families with gay members tend to be stronger and more successful.
Whatever is to come, we have definitely turned a major corner in recent years. There’s a bright gay future ahead for the industry, and I couldn’t be more proud.
Southern grown Dane Hill has worked in the dot-com industry for the past 15 years, having put his Drama degree from the University of Virginia to good use. His passions have been comic books and baseball since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Well the big summer blockbusters are all done. But that doesn’t mean comic books are done invading pop culture entertainment. I always think the source material is better, but checking out comic book adaptations, whether TV or film, can be a good way of sampling. Here’s what’s coming down the pike for the rest of 2011:
Piled Higher and Deeper: The PhD Movie – Live action comedy about graduate college.
- Schedule: Screenings at international colleges and universities including the official premiere at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena on Thursday, September 22 at 8 PM.
- Based on the popular webcomic PhD: Piled Higher and Deeper by Jorge Cham. Running since 1997, Cham’s comic strip is also published in several college newspapers and has been reprinted in four print collections. (Thanks to Comics Alliance)
The Walking Dead Season 2 – Live action horror TV series about a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
- Schedule: 13 episodes starting Sunday, October 16 at 9 PM Eastern on AMC.
- Based on The Walking Dead comic books and graphic novels by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, published by Image Comics and Skybound Entertainment. This season appears to roughly borrow from The Walking Dead Volume 2: Miles Behind Us.
Batman: Year One – Animated feature-length movie about the noir-ish retelling of the early days of Bruce Wayne’s superhero career.
- Schedule: Released on DVD, Blu-ray and for download on Tuesday, October 18.
- Based on one of the seminal DC Comics graphic novels, Batman: Year One by writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli. The story was originally published in Batman comic books in 1987.
X-Men Anime Series – Animated TV series imported from Japan featuring the mutant superheroes Cyclops, Wolverine and others fighting for a world that fears and hates them.
- Schedule: 12 episodes starting Friday, October 21 at 11 PM Eastern on G4.
- Based on various X-Men comic books and graphic novels published by Marvel Comics over the years but specifically narrowing in on New X-Men by writer Grant Morrison and various artists, as well as Astonishing X-Men by writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday.
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Season 2 – Animated TV series about Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America and their superhero friends fighting evil.
- Schedule: 26 episodes starting on a Sunday in October at 10 AM Eastern and Pacific on Disney XD
- Based on a whole slew of Avengers and other comic books by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others, as well as The Kree-Skrull War by writer Roy Thomas, artist Neal Adams and others, and Secret Invasion by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Leinil Francis Yu, published by Marvel Comics. Plus there’s definitely inspiration taken from the Iron Man movies.
Green Lantern: The Animated Series Season 1 – CGI animated series about a sci-fi superhero with cosmically powered jewelry.
- Schedule: This was originally set to debut last week but now a preview is going to air this Fall, possibly in November, with the full 26-episode season to start in Spring 2012 on Cartoon Network.
- Based on countless Green Lantern comics but more specifically this summer’s Green Lantern movie and recent Green Lantern comic books and graphic novels by writer Geoff Johns and others published by DC Comics.
The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn – CGI animated 3D feature film using performance capture technology. It’s about a plucky journalist and his dog going on a globe-trotting treasure hunt.
- Schedule: Opens in US movie theaters on Friday, December 23.
- Based on the international bestselling comic books Les Aventures de Tintin by the celebrated Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Tintin’s adventures have been translated into English as a series of graphic novels, most recently published by Little, Brown and Company. The movie specifically adapts The Secret of the Unicorn, as well as Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Crab with the Golden Claws.
Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments or email and I’ll add them in.
Public awareness of comic books (or graphic novels or whatever you want to call them) is probably at an all-time high. Certainly higher than it’s been since the ’50s. But awareness has translated to people seeing and talking about comic book movies and TV shows, not actually reading comic books and graphic novels. Not in any significant and sustainable influx of numbers, anyway. Fortunately some comics publishers have noticed this and are doing some things about it.
Marvel Comics has entered into a partnership with Starbucks where their Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service will be included free as part of the Starbucks Digital Network available via free Wi-Fi to patrons of nearly 6,800 Starbucks coffee shops in the United States. Marvel’s MDCU currently has about 8,000 comic books available digitally, with more added every week, so it’s quite a sampling. It will be part of the Entertainment channel, along with iTunes, Nick Jr. Boost, Yahoo! entertainment offerings, and other content providers. This has huge potential to lure in the simply-curious for some fun Marvel comic books. If it goes well, maybe Starbucks will add in other publishers to offer a greater diversity of material (ie, not just superhero comics). It’s an exciting start and a great idea. (Read more about Starbucks’ announcement.)
DC Comics also had big news yesterday. Cartoon Network announced plans for a block of on-air and online programming they are calling DC Nation. “A multi-platform, branded block of original programming and exclusive content based on the DC Comics library of legendary character properties, DC Nation is developed in partnership with Cartoon Network, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment. The all-new venture will harness the publishing, theatrical and television assets together for one powerful on-air block on Cartoon Network with exclusive online content.” The name is a reference to DC Comics’ in-house column of the same name that appears monthly in most of their comic books. Programming will include a CG-animated Green Lantern animated series and a brand new Looney Tunes show, among lots of other things (ThunderCats!). Cartoon Network is saying that it will be “populated with event programming, interstitials, exclusive behind-the-scenes of theatrical production and an insider look into the world of all things DC.” Maybe I’m getting my hopes up too high, but I’m hoping they will use this opportunity to promote DC’s line of comic books and graphic novels, and not exclusively focus on other media. (Read more about Cartoon Network’s announcement.)
And finally, LA-based Boom! Studios released a PDF of a comic book meant to be freely shared and passed on to friends. In a bold reversal of most publishers’ fears of pirating, Boom! is embracing the modern internet culture of sharing by actually encouraging people to pass it on to others. The comic, suggested for mature readers, is Hellraiser: At the Tolling Bell, a new 8-page comic by horror legend Clive Barker and artist Leonard Manco (Hellblazer). It serves as a prelude to the new ongoing Hellraiser comic book series by Barker and Manco. This is a pretty big deal because, as mentioned on his website, “Clive Barker has touched Hellraiser only twice: once to write The Hellbound Heart, and once more to write and direct the original Hellraiser film”. The preview includes a link to sign up for more free comics from Boom!, a great explanation of how the new Hellraiser series will work for the uninitiated (“Just as TV shows are serialized week to week, comic books are serialized month to month”), a list of premiere comic book shops in Canada and the United States, with links to their websites, and a link to the Comic Shop Locator and their phone number 888-COMIC-BOOK. The PDF comic is a very creative advertisement for the comic, and they take great pains to make it clear that it’s not a preview – what appears in the PDF comic is unique and not an excerpt of the first issue. (Read more about Boom!’s announcement.)
Three publishers creatively reaching out to new audiences. What a great step in the right direction. To these three publishers and every other publisher out there: more like this, please!
Sales numbers for the comic book direct market in the month of February have been released and they’re getting the monthly armchair analysis (notably, at ICv2 and ComiChron). The direct market, if you don’t know, is essentially the comic book stores, specialty shops and book stores serviced by Diamond Comics Distributors.
The big eye-catching headline is that the highest selling comic book for February is the weakest top-seller in 10 years, possibly ever. DC Comics‘ Green Lantern #62 by Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke shipped only an estimated 71,500 copies. For a bit of context, February 2006‘s top seller moved over 140,000 copies. As ComiChron points out, Green Lantern in the 1960s was selling over 200,000 copies a month. Comics have also sold in the millions per month.
So is the end nigh? After January’s poor showing, and now this, there’s certainly plenty of hand-wringing and window jumping. It’s easy to draw that conclusion, but as both sites point out, the entire month’s sales are actually just barely up. That’s due to a modestly better sales through the mid-list and lower selling comics, or the long tail. Without those sales, the industry would indeed be hurting due to a lack of breakout hits and lackluster ordering of the top 100 comics. A dive was also averted due to high priced graphic novels sold in February, such as the Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne deluxe hardcover by Grant Morrison and various artists, with a suggested price of $29.99.
There are lots of factors at play here. DC Comics has rolled back their cover prices to $2.99. The first quarter is traditionally weaker. Diamond started shipping comics on Tuesday for a Wednesday on-sale date, and the transition threw off some orders.
While it seems like comics sale are constantly falling and that this is an all-new low, I think the notable observation made is that comics sales are largely where they were 10 years ago. In this economy, that’s a victory. But then you consider that 10 years ago, comic stores had nowhere near as many resources. These newer resources should theoretically be pulling in customers. Graphic novels and manga in book stores and libraries were just ramping up ten years ago. The first X-Men movie had arrived with much enthusiasm but the huge success of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Batman Begins and a slew of other comic book adaptations were just around the corner. During the decade, web comics would continue to expand and diversify, becoming a (more) accepted form of syndication and distribution. And digital comics on iPhones, iPads, Playstation PSPs, Androids, on the web and elsewhere were beyond most people’s imagination and are now a quickly growing infant. Educators at libraries and schools have embraced comics as literacy tools and are helping their reach increase. This decade has started with a mass awareness and enthusiasm of comics that has never been higher.
And yet for comics stores, it’s like none of the progress from the last 10-15 years has even happened. All of these elements should serve as feeders to comic book stores. A percentage of readers from each of these places would theoretically be curious to more fully dive in to this world, and the comic book store is the best place to go. Or it’s supposed to be. Maybe it isn’t the best place. Or maybe it isn’t the most welcoming place for people coming from those other places. Or maybe we’re losing too many readers from old age or dissatisfaction and the new readers are causing us to break even. If that’s the case, I guess we get credit for stopping the hemorrhaging.
Diamond is trying to tie in the digital element but it’s criticized as inconvenient and counter-intuitive to the instant gratification of the digital world. Why would someone drive to a comic book store to buy a code that they use to download something to their device of choice when they can just do the same thing without driving anywhere either illegally or by waiting a month? Good question. But at least they’re trying. That same experimentation (or, preferably, better experimentation) should be applied to book stores, schools, libraries, movie theaters, TV, and anywhere else someone might discover that comics can be as good a way to be entertained as any other form of entertainment.
Diamond and its network of independent comic stores have a chance to turn the halted hemorrhaging into real growth. While there are a few stores out there that are doing what they can on their own, a series of coordinated efforts is what is needed. And if they don’t do it, one of those feeders will do it instead and become the dominant space in the industry. Comics aren’t going anywhere. It’s how you get them and how they get to you that is changing.
The Hammer Museum here in LA reached out to let us know about a free event celebrating 75 Years of DC Comics on Tuesday December 14th at 7 PM.
Yes believe it or not, back in 1935 (!), 12 US Presidents ago, way before either Iraq Wars, before the Cold War, the Vietnam War, a few years before World War II and with the country still trying to shake off the Great Depression, a company then called National Allied Publications took a risk by publishing the first comic book of all-original material, New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine. Before then, comics were mostly or entirely made up of recycled newspaper comic strips. It was an uphill venture that initially didn’t pay off until 1938 with the release of Action Comics #1 and the debut of Superman. This was not only a huge hit, but it ended up inventing an entire sub-genre: superheroes. As National Allied changed hands, it’s name evolved to National Periodical Publications and eventually DC Comics and just recently DC Entertainment, named after the home of their second mega-hit Batman from Detective Comics. DC has remained an industry leader since the late 1930s, publishing more world icons like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash to accompany Superman and Batman.
Last month saw the release of a massive retrospective, 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking, written by former DC Comics president Paul Levitz. (Levitz was among our interviewees for Dig Comics at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego.) To help in the yearlong celebration, Levitz will be joined at UCLA’s Hammer Museum by current DC executives and creators Jim Lee and Geoff Johns to discuss the history and future of DC. The event will be moderated by comedian Patton Oswalt, who’s no stranger to the world of comic books.
Within its short 75-year lifespan, DC Comics has created and destroyed entire cities, worlds, and universes with a cast of characters that includes the titans of the Superhero world. Comedian, actor, and writer Patton Oswalt will moderate a discussion among DC Comics’ Paul Levitz, Jim Lee, and Geoff Johns, the creative and editorial superheroes behind the pages of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Green Lantern, who will discuss the pulp origins of DC Comics’ story lines and characters, as well as the future of digital publishing.
ALL HAMMER PUBLIC PROGRAMS ARE FREE. Tickets are required, and are available at the Billy Wilder Theater Box Office one hour prior to start time. Limit one ticket per person on a first come, first served basis. Hammer members receive priority seating, subject to availability. Reservations not accepted, RSVPs not required.
Parking is available under the museum for $3 after 6:00pm.
While this looks like fun, the really interesting part to me is the inclusion of discussing the future of digital publishing. DC has made some good moves in this area just in the last few months, but it has also sadly shut down its imprint for original webcomics Zuda Comics. Word is that some more bold moves are in the works. I’m not expecting any solid announcements, but I’m hoping there will be some positive discussion to show that they’re ready to push strongly in that direction.
And I’m also unrealistically hoping they’ll pass out free copies of Levitz’ 75 Years of DC Comics to everyone in the audience, Oprah-style.
My post on Monday about innovative experiments with digital comics doesn’t mean I don’t love me some dead tree comics. Print still has a lot to offer but digital means that the physical version has to step it up and offer more. Fortunately there are some good examples out there.
As a counter-point to the Johnny Cash digital graphic novel with soundtrack, there is BB Wolf and the Three L.P.’s by JD Arnold and Richard Koslowski from Top Shelf Productions. It can be purchased with a 7-song CD, BB Wolf and the Howlers: The Lost Recordings. The graphic novel spins 1920s race tension with the Three Little Pigs fairy tale. The CD brings the music of the titular blues singing main character to life, which is a very cool way to eliminate the guess work of what the music of a fictional character from a silent medium sounds like. You can also get the limited edition BB Wolf Box Set, which includes the graphic novel, the CD and a wooden box with laser engraved art on the cover and 2 shot glasses for that authentic hard-drinking blues effect.
Creating such an experience that goes beyond the pages is a compelling way to make it still matter to have print and physical product. But it doesn’t have to be about creating ancillary material. Savvy creators and publishers can find ways to have their published material be an aesthetic extension of the world they have created.
Fantagraphics Books has always excelled at this. C. Tyler‘s You’ll Never Know, both Book I: A Good and Decent Man and the new release Book II: Collateral Damage, are designed to look like scrap books or photo albums, inside and out. A visually powerful choice that is incredibly appropriate since the story centers on a woman trying to piece together her reticent father’s wartime past.
Last year, DC Comics published Wednesday Comics, an anthology of superhero and adventure stories printed on large broadsheet newsprint that folded out to 14″ x 20″ pages, approximately double the size of modern comic book pages. Reminiscent of the old Sunday comics pages from the first half of the 1900′s, it was a kick to see Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman and other characters in this retro format that pre-dated nearly all of them.
There are a lot of other good examples. Some publishers, like Archaia Entertainment and Drawn & Quarterly, just have consistently great design sense in their print publications. Tumor, by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Noel Tuazon, started its life as a digital graphic novel on the Amazon Kindle, but has ended up being a great looking physical product. Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library books (and really any of his books) are always intricately stunning.
So sure, digital comics are the future. But that doesn’t automatically mean print comics have to be relegated to the past. There are still new and creative ways to make an appealing print comic book or graphic novel. As the ratio of print to digital finds its level ground, it will be up to creators and publishers to make products in both realms that are compelling and worth a reader’s investment.