So a reader asked me, recently, what it would take to get me to stop reading comics. It’s an interesting question, and one that I hadn’t really thought about much. I mean, that’s like asking what it would take to get me to stop watching movies. Or reading novels. Or breathing. Why would I do that? It doesn’t make sense to me.
But I gave it some thought, and the first thing I came up with was “Poverty.” Because funnybooks are kind of expensive as entertainment mediums go, and they’re not the kind of thing you can count on being able to find at the library. But then, thinking further and taking the inner workings of the American comics industry into account, I added, “Or a market collapse so severe that only the Big Two publishers survived.” Because, holy crap, wouldn’t THAT be a disaster?
Then the person I was chatting with (who, as I said, reads the blog) completely blew my mind by telling me that he thought the Big Two was what I mostly read, already. You could have knocked me over with a feather. If he’d gotten that impression from reading the Dork Forty, I told him, I was doing something wrong. Because nothing could be further from the truth. Understand, I wasn’t offended or anything. Just shocked. From my perspective, while I’ve certainly never shied away from talking Big Two super hero comics, I’ve spent a lot more time over the past few years reading and writing about… championing, even… indie comics.
Still. Something had to be giving that impression, so I looked back over the front page. And you know, just looking at that… I have to admit that I could see how someone might think this site was all about the corporate spandex. When I do retro reviews or historical pieces, they’re almost always about old comics from the major publishers. And even with the modern reviews, I usually lead with something from the Big Two. I’m always reading SOMEthing from them, after all, even if it is usually special big-deal limited run stuff from special big-deal creative teams that I like. Books that don’t have to deal with the tedious business of adhering to corporate franchise storytelling rules. Books with the freedom to experiment, or even just to get down to the business of simply telling a good story, and telling it well.
So give me Ed Piskor playing around with the X-Men, and I’ll take a chance on it. Give me Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov telling the story of the Punisher’s first days in ‘Nam, and I’ll almost certainly give it a shot. Give me Grant Morrison doing his thing on whatever characters have caught his fancy this year, and I won’t miss it. Hell, give me Steve Rude turning in gorgeous pages on a freaking Birdman comic…
…and you’ll still most likely get my money.
So when I have a comic with a DC bullet or Marvel logo on it, it’s usually the first book I discuss. Why? Because, much like on the shelf at your local funnybook store, Marvel and DC are what drive traffic here. I don’t make any money off this joint, I assure you, and I’m not vain enough to write about something I don’t care about just to get more readers. Not that I wouldn’t like more readers. That would be great. But mostly, I do this as an outlet, to get thoughts out of my head, and to gain a better appreciation for the comics I read by examining them and finding something about them that’s worth saying. It’s all about me, in other words, and if other folks come along for the ride… All the better. I do look at my stats from time to time, though, and what I’ve found is that columns that say something about Batman always, without fail, get more eyes on them than columns about, say, Stray Bullets.
Which makes me sad, but that’s just the reality of the comics business. And, you know. I like Batman, too. So I’m okay with it. Also, I figure, if I get more readers with Batman, I might as well use him. If people show up for the Caped Crusader, at least a fraction of them might stick around to read about Amy Racecar. And if that gets even a fraction of that fraction reading Stray Bullets… I’ve done my good deed for the day.
And that’s not just because Stray Bullets is less popular. It’s because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s better. It’s more inspired, more complex in plot and character, and David Lapham has the creative freedom to do with it exactly what he wants, because it’s his. And that’s what I’m ultimately looking for in a comic: full-blooded, idiosyncratic work from writers and artists at the top of their game. Things that couldn’t have been made by anyone else but those people. And to get that, I usually have to turn to the indies, and to original projects that those creators have a personal stake in.
And it’s not like my tastes are super-esoteric, either. I just love well-crafted genre fiction. Stuff like Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker’s supernatural banking noir, The Black Monday Murders. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ endless series of crime comics: Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade-Out, and their currently-running urban vigilante series Kill or be Killed. Eric Powell’s Appalachian fantasy comic, Hillbilly. David Lapham’s afore-mentioned decades-spanning suburban crime epic Stray Bullets. Andrew Maclean’s batshit-crazy sword and sorcery adventure, Head Lopper. Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s small-town super hero meditation, Black Hammer (and Lemire’s solo slice-of-life ghost story Royal City). Matt Fraction’s indie comics cottage industry (Sex Criminals, Casanova, and Ody-C), books he cares about so much that it sometimes feels like he’s bleeding into his typewriter.
It’s a very rare thing to get that kind of dedication on work-for-hire comics these days, because that stuff is self-limiting. Nobody’s willing to give away their best ideas for page rate anymore, so what you’re left with in the corporate comics sphere is people playing with someone else’s toys. Writing about someone else’s ideas. And there’s only so much you can make it your own. There have always been exceptions, of course (look to Fraction and Aja’s runs on Iron Fist and Hawkeye for good modern examples), but those are increasingly rare as these characters come under more and more corporate control and editorial scrutiny.
The best I can hope for, most of the time, is something like Jason Aaron’s Thor. Which ain’t great, but is an awful lot of fun. Not four-dollars-a-month worth of fun, mind you. But when those 80% off sales on the digital trades hit… I’m all over it. There’s a number of Big Two books I follow that way, in fact. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, Jason LaTour’s Spider-Gwen, Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight, that (now-cancelled) Power Man and Iron Fist book from David Walker and Sanford Greene… I just picked up all of Jason Aaron’s Dr. Strange and Star Wars stuff, too. But only because it was going for, like, two bucks per trade. At those prices, I can eat that stuff like candy, and not worry too much about how unsatisfying it is in comparison to the full meals I get out of the comics I really love.
One guy who’s a great example of what I’m talking about here, vis a vis the quality gap between work-for-hire and owning your own ideas, is Matt Kindt. He’s been kicking around the comics industry for ages, specializing in very human, almost slice-of-life, takes on various genre standards: detectives, spies, giants, alternate realities, etc. I got into him through Mind MGMT, a twisty psychic spy thriller that delved deep into the nature of memory. His follow-up to that, the very-nearly-finished Dept. H, is a murder mystery set in the world of Jacques Cousteau style adventure science that slowly submerges the reader in its characters and plot. I’m also a huge fan of his urban fantasy series Ether, with artist David Rubin.
That’s one of those “guy from the real world crosses over into a land of mystical magical bullshit” kind of stories. Which, granted, we’ve seen before. But Kindt and Rubin’s handling of it brings it to life. The fantasy world on display is imaginative almost to the point of being nonsensical, but it has its own rules and rhythms that make everything work. At times, Ether reads like a children’s book for adults, whimsical and funny and sad, grappling with issues of sanity, aging, and the high cost of living a fantasy. It’s a vivid and inspired comic of surprising depth.
In contrast, his corporate spandex work is… just okay. He wrote one of the mutant books for a while (I don’t remember which one), and I sampled an issue, just to see. And it was fine. Competent. A good example of the kind of storytelling you’re going to get from comics like that. It was safe, and it hit all the expected beats, and was adequately entertaining. His work-for-hire stuff at Valiant is better, but even that falls short for me. It lacks personality. Verve. Depth. Inspiration. All the things I demand from my entertainment.
And that’s what this really comes down to, for me: inspiration and originality. I’ve been saying for the better part of the current decade that we’re living in a new Golden Age, an era in which a wide variety of creators are putting out career-best work in a wide variety of genres. Creatively, the industry as a whole is as healthy as I’ve ever seen it. I currently have almost forty comics on my pull list down at the local funnybook store. Some of them don’t come out very often. Many of them work on a TV-style release system, doing maybe six or eight issues a year, with planned breaks in-between storylines. But, still. Considering how picky I am about writing and art (and holy crap am I ever picky about writing and art)… That’s a lot.
And how many of those books come out from the Big Two? Currently… Eight. Of those, only two are on-going series: Rivera and Oeming’s Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, and Chip Zdarsky’s Marvel Two-In-One. And I’m mostly buying Two-In-One because I love the Fantastic Four so damn much. I mean, I love Zdarsky, too. But I didn’t buy his Spider-Man or Howard the Duck or Jughead books, so… Obviously, I love the FF more. But I digress. Every other Big Two comic on my list is a mini-series from a creative team I like, and is wholly separate from the grind of monthly Big Two super hero comics.
Your mileage, of course, may vary. If the monthly grind of Big Two super hero comics is what you like, then more power to you. But for me… If the comics market collapsed tomorrow, leaving only the Big Two in business, I would go from forty books to eight. And my disappointment at the loss might just get me to stop reading comics altogether.
But hopefully, I’ll never have to find out…