So here we are at the dawn of a new decade. And that’s got me thinking about where the funnybook business is.
Well… okay. What really got me thinking about it was poring over the latest issue of Previews. If you’re not familiar, Previews is the monthly ordering catalog for Diamond Distribution, the company that supplies every comic book specialty shop in America (with a monopolistic hold over the industry that, in a saner world, would run afoul of anti-trust laws). If it’s comics, Diamond sells it. And they sell it through Previews.
I don’t look at the catalog very often, but I do like to check it out once or twice a year, just to keep abreast of new books that look interesting. Often, I’ll just do a quick browse (because, holy crap, there’s some unbelievably bad stuff in there). But this time I did a deep dive, sampling digital previews of books I wasn’t familiar with and making note of new stuff from creators I follow. Mike Allred’s upcoming X-Ray Robot, for instance, looks amazing.
Anyway. The deep dive gave me an overview of the industry, a snapshot of where we are and what we’re doing. But first, some context. We’re coming out of a decade that I’ve often called a new Golden Age, in which the variety of genres and subject matter widened to a point not seen in decades. Overall quality was also at an all-time high, with perhaps less frequent spikes than in some periods, but with more consistently good material coming out month to month. So where does it look like we’re heading at the beginning of the new decade? Let’s see…
The first thing you notice when you pick up an issue of Previews is the Big Two: Marvel and DC. Each of them puts out their own separate funnybook-sized preview guide, tucked into the giant catalog and prone to fall out when you’re handling the thing.
Which is annoying, but that’s the Big Two for you: desperate for attention, and seemingly oblivious to the hundred tiny ways they piss off their core audience. But putting aside the endless sales gimmicks, crossovers, reboots and variant covers, what I mostly see from the Big Two is a kind of general basic competence. Few of their books look blatantly bad, but even fewer of them look genuinely good. They’re starting to approach the level of stuff like Star Trek novels, which don’t generally attract the best talent, but which can be depended upon to offer up competently-told stories featuring characters people love. Super hero comics do still offer more creative freedom, mind you, and the quality can be higher because of that. I mean, Marvel DOES have Ta-Nehisi Coates writing both Black Panther and Captain America, and even if I don’t personally like his work on those books enough to pay for them, I do recognize that it’s a big freaking deal that he’s even there.
But mostly, these Big Two books look like they’re being written and drawn to corporate standards. They’re jobs, taken on by up-and-coming young talent looking to build a fan base, or by solid middle-of-the-road professionals who maybe lack the creative spark needed to come up with their own original works. Very little of it is more than pretty good, and almost none of it looks like something that’s truly inspired.
Looking at the two company’s core spandex titles, though, I’d say that Marvel’s output looks better. The concepts seem a little sharper, and they’re at least producing stuff that looks like it was made with a 21st Century audience in mind. Which is to say, an audience that, alongside the traditional super hero audience of straight white males, might include women, minorities, and young adults.
That seems smart to me. The more different kinds of people you appeal to, after all, the more people you can sell comics to.
DC, meanwhile, seems to be trying a little too hard to be cool. Or “kewl,” as we used to say back in the 1990s. There are exceptions (the Wonder Comics line, for example, seems aimed at a broader spectrum of younger people), but the overall impression I get is that DC’s aiming squarely for things 13-year-old boys thought were cool 30 years ago.
Which is to say, they’re shooting for the 43-year-old men those boys have grown into. More than anything else, it looks kind of like they’ve given up. They’re aiming their main line of super hero books at the aging, shrinking audience that’s been reading it since 1986, and not trying to attract anyone new.
Once you get outside the in-continuity super hero universe stuff, though, their output becomes a lot more interesting. They’re going after better talent to do better comics outside the monthly grind, with 12-issue novel-length series and over-sized prestige format books, telling evergreen stories that don’t get bogged down in the regular continuity. Those conditions appeal to creators who might not be interested in dealing with the hassles of shared universes, and to audiences who just want a good story without all the baggage. But DC doesn’t stop there. They’re also delving into the lucrative Young Adult and Kids’ markets with completely outside-continuity takes on their line of characters. And while they’ve killed the beloved Vertigo imprint, they’ve replaced it with other, smaller imprints that fill the same niche (the Gaiman books, the Joe Hill books, and Gerard Way’s hipster/weirdo/artsy Young Animal line).
Granted, some of those books look better than others. The youth line, in particular, seems hit and miss. But the real gems shine pretty bright, and as long as they’re letting Baltazar and Franco cut loose with their characters…
…it’ll probably be okay.
Marvel, meanwhile, is doing basically none of that. They’ve farmed their kids’ comics out to IDW, and those books really are generic spandex fodder. None of them look fun or particularly interesting, and I don’t know of any kids who actually enjoy them. Ultimately, even more than the Marvel main line, you’re looking at sub-Star-Trek-novel levels of quality. And as for comics for adults… well… Garth Ennis still occasionally shows up with a new Punisher story, but other than that, I can’t think of anything. They do, every once in a while, put out something interesting from a noteworthy creator. Tradd Moore’s recently-completed Silver Surfer Black comes to mind, as does the work of the previously-mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates. But even those books often seem tied up in continuity, continuing on from stories I haven’t read and don’t care about. Anyone just wanting a good baggage-free story from Marvel is going to be hard-pressed to find one.
So while Marvel’s core books look better, the DC line wins for me overall. Instead of diversifying the traditional spandex line like their competition, they’re looking for other audiences outside it, and in the process producing a handful of comics that look genuinely good.
But a handful of good funnybooks does not a Golden Age make. For that, you’ll have to look beyond the two publishers who rule the roost in the funnybook stores, and out into the wider world. And that’s where we’ll turn our attention next time…