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2020 State of the Industry, Part Two: The Good Stuff

So last week, a look at the March Previews catalog got me thinking about the state of the comics industry heading into the new decade. We’ve just been through a period that I consider a new Golden Age, with an explosion of great comics in a variety of genres. All in all, the last ten years have been a great time to be a comics fan. But a new decade brings a new dawn. Will the good times continue? Or have we started a decline? Let’s find out…

I started things off last week by looking at the 500-lb gorillas of the funnybook market, Marvel and DC. They mostly turn out competent, dependable licensed fiction, which is fine. But despite a handful of very good comics, they’re not the basis of this Golden Age I keep talking about. For that, you have to look to the so-called Indies. That’s where the best work and the most exciting concepts are coming from.

You’ve got Robert Kirkman building his multi-genre empire…

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips turning out the best noir that comics has ever seen…

(This is their upcoming book, Pulp. COWBOY NOIR!)

Warren Ellis adding to his storied career with irregular spates of innovative sci-fi…

Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire creating a variety of very personal works across the genre spectrum…

 

Los Bros Hernandez continuing the two greatest literary soap operas ever made…

And that’s just a sampling. But there’s dozens of other creators on top of that, all turning out career-best work, month after month.

Which only makes sense. If the Big Two are the funnybook equivalent of Star Trek novels, the Indies are… well… everything else. Fiction owned by its creators, who maintain a real stake in its success. It’s no wonder that’s where the best stuff is coming from. That said, though…

Digging through the Indie portion of Previews (which makes up most of the actual catalog), you’re immediately struck by how much of it is absolute crap. Because oh my god there’s a lot of crap. Tons of it. Most of the catalog, to be honest, is just bloody awful. I mean, you can count on the stuff from major Indies like Image, Dark Horse, and Fantagraphics to maintain a certain level of quality. But beyond that… whoosh. It’s an overwhelming array of exploitation, empty sensationalism, bland amateurs, full two-page spreads of god-awful T&A, and some of the most laughable attempts at manufacturing a collectibles market you’ve ever seen. The worst habits of the 1990s have made a comeback, it seems, and they’re all on full shameless display in Previews. Scanning these pages for something worth reading is like panning for gold in a river of shit.

And yet, this is also the part of the catalog that makes me think the new Golden Age is indeed still in full swing. For one thing… Have you ever really looked at Golden Age comics? There were tons of them, and the vast majority of them were crap. We look back and remember the good stuff: Eisner, Kirby, Jack Cole, Dick Sprang, CC Beck… But for every great, there were a dozen absolute hacks churning out god-awful funnybooks that are best-forgotten. Much like today.

This follows a truism that I’ve always subscribed to: 90 percent of everything is crap.

I mean, hell, look back at what I consider comics’ most recent Golden Age: the 1980s. That decade started with Jack Kirby’s last great work (Captain Victory) and continued on through Walt Simonson’s Thor… Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!

Baron & Rude’s Nexus

Los Bros’ initial run of Love and Rockets… Alan Moore’s amazing sprint through V for Vendetta, Marvelman, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen… Frank Miller’s Ronin, Dark Knight, Martha Washington and Sin City… and too many more to name. It was an explosion of creativity and great comics in multiple genres… Which then spawned a glut of imitators and dreadful crap that wound up choking the business almost to death.

So are we at that tipping point now? Is the weight of all the crap dragging the good stuff down with it? Will the Big Two once again be the only real survivors?

I don’t think so. Though it IS easy to overlook publishers like Black Mask or Vault, who are putting out some interesting little books these days…

…those books still seem to be finding a market. Which is good. From what I read, shops that have diversified their stock, keeping up with books outside the comics shop mainstream, are succeeding, while shops that have remained reliant mostly upon Big Two output and speculator market crap are slowly dying off. And a couple of the biggest comic shops in the world have recently announced that they’re dropping their Diamond Distribution account (the account through which they order stuff from Previews), and will no longer be carrying an array of monthly comics from the Big Two. What are they carrying, and where are they getting it?

The answer to that question is why I don’t think the current Golden Age is going into decline. It’s just that the comics market is changing.

Because what these shops are finding is that the monthlies have become a dangerous and annoying guessing game, with the Big Two pushing variant covers, reboots, and EVENTS ™ so hard that it’s impossible to order intelligently anymore. All their gimmicks have reached a point of diminishing returns, and driven readers away. So these stores are focusing more on graphic novel sales. Collected editions of books that sell to people who just want to read a good story. But also stuff from a burgeoning market of comics material being published not by traditional comics publishers, but by the actual major publishing houses.

Cartoonist Emily Carroll, for instance, is published by Simon & Shuster.

Charles Burns’ Black Hole is published by Pantheon.

All the Fantagraphics books (including the Los Bros, Dan Clowes and Chris Ware libraries) are, I believe, being distributed by WW Norton. Even the Big Two’s graphic novel output is available through other channels. At my day job, I just ordered some copies of Watchmen through Ingram (the largest book distributor in the world).

Then there’s the huge market of kids’ graphic novels, coming from anywhere but traditional comics publishers. The massively successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid books come out from Abrams. And Scholastic publishes an array of comics material, including last year’s best-selling comic, Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man (which sold over 5 million copies, outstripping European kids’ comic smash hit Asterix for the first time ever).

So, yes. Comics are healthy, and the array of new comics material runs a wide gamut, appealing to a far wider audience than the medium’s enjoyed in America in a very long time. It’s just that the medium is being delivered in different forms. And the comics shop market as we’ve known it for the last 40 years is going to have to change.

Or die.

About Mark Brett (556 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

1 Comment on 2020 State of the Industry, Part Two: The Good Stuff

  1. Glad Black Mask is still putting out good stuff. I loved, LOVED Ballistic.
    If you’re not aware, here’s a list of title Black Mask has published or is publishing, and Godkillers looks good to me and worth checking out.

    Definitely digging Jeff Lemire’s indy work, especially his Black Hammer world, with Skulldigger being the latest thing that’s hooked me.

    Liked by 1 person

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