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Comics are a medium not a genre

I thought this post was apt as Saturday 3rd May is Free Comic Book Day. A date where shops order a quantity of special comics which they then give away free. It generates a lot of business for them and it attracts a lot of people, some of whom will hopefully be new readers. So if you’ve not tried comics before, now is the time to try.  Also if you’re not convinced about comics, keep reading.

Comics are a medium not a genre. I’ve said it many times already and no doubt I will continue to say it many more times in the future. For those who don’t read comics, for those who’ve only become aware of them via other media, in particular films, it can seem like comics are just superheroes. But it’s worth repeating, comics are a medium, not a genre.

During the last fifteen years or so, comic book movies have gone from those that don’t appear to be based on comic books at all, such as Blade, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, The Losers, RED, right up to billion dollar box office smash hits with larger than life characters in bright costumes, like The Avengers, Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the X-Men franchise. It’s a wonderful and amazing time to be a comic book fan as now we can enjoy seeing these characters all over the world, and watch as people discover them for the first time. The films might even attract a few new readers to the comic book medium, but sometimes there’s still that moment of surprise that comics are more than superheroes.

If you walk into a bookshop, a Waterstones in the UK, or Barnes and Noble in the USA, you wouldn’t expect every title on the shelf to just be crime, or history books, or biographies. It’s exactly the same with comics. For every single genre you can think of, and many you’ve probably never considered before as they mash-up different elements, there is a comic book. Superheroes dominate the US and UK comic book market, and I have a theory about why this is which I will come back to, but in other countries superheroes are seen as just one of many genres, not the main focus.

Comics are an important medium. There, I said it. Over the years I’ve heard many stories of how children first learned to read with comics and how it helped create a love of stories and reading in general. That has to be something that is cherished and encouraged. We all start out with picture books as very small children with only a few words, which then progresses to fiction and non-fiction for school work. But comics are not a poor man’s novel, it is a unique medium which I’ll address in a bit.

Comics can and have been used to tell some of the most important stories in modern history. Art Spiegelman chronicled the experiences of his father, a Polish Jew, during the Holocaust and his life at Auschwitz. It is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read and in 1992 it was the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Yes, THE Pulitzer Prize for an outstanding work of journalism or literature. Only last year Top Shelf Comics published March, a graphic novel memoir about US Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis who has been fighting for equality for over 50 years. March includes his memories of the Civil Rights Movement, including the 1963 March on Washington, and it is his first-hand account of the struggles over the years. It is an important piece of literature that just happens to be in comic book form.

Of course comics don’t have to be about heavy subjects. They can be light fun, entertaining, humorous, silly and entertaining. From coming of age stories, to romance, to horror, to westerns to crime to science fiction and fantasy. I grew up reading superhero comics, but now I read all sorts, such as Saga, an intergalactic space adventure, reminiscent in some ways of Star Wars, or Sixth Gun, a pulpy horror western, or Grandville, an anthropomorphic steampunk crime adventure series. I still read and enjoy superheroes, but like any other medium I don’t just stick to one genre. The possibilities with comics are endless.

Comics are also a unique medium. They’ve existed in one form or another for thousands of years and a creative team on a comic book (writer, penciller, inker, colourist, letterer) can create stories in such a way that it can’t be done in the same way in any other medium. Scott McLeod is a cartoonist and comic book theorist who has written several non-fiction graphic novels about this that detail different aspects of comics, from their ancient history to their rapid evolution. He breaks down and explains some of the elements that make comics unique and a remarkable medium. Understanding Comics is the first of his books and the best place to start if you’re interested, then he moved on to Reinventing Comics which looked at how much comics had changed since he first started writing Understanding Comics. The medium is also constantly evolving and being reimagined by creative people who even now do things on the page that I’ve never seen before.

Going back in time a little, and focusing on the American market, comic books in multiple genres used to be common. During the 1970s, Marvel published among other things horror, western, war, martial arts, and humour comics. These days both Marvel and DC, the two biggest publishers in the US market are synonymous with superhero comics. They do a little in other genres, but superheroes are their bread and butter. They feed into all of the other areas, from film and TV to computer games, merchandise, toys and even clothing. But it all comes back to those iconic heroes. So why are we still obsessed with them?

I have a theory, and it’s not an original one, so I’m not claiming I came up with it first, but of the many ideas I’ve heard it seems the most plausible to me. Superhero comic books are the equivalent of modern myths and legends. I grew up reading the likes of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, Greek and Roman myths and legends, folk tales from all around the world in fact, and these parables and mythological stories are being replicated in comics. They are the ongoing adventures of larger than life characters. Some superhero characters are direct figures from mythology in modern day, such as Thor and Hercules, some are obvious analogues such as The Flash as Mercury, Aquaman as Poseidon. Some are not as clear cut and they represent ideals such as Hope, Justice and Equality, but these basic principles, wrapped up in an interesting character never go out of fashion. There are other reasons we love superheroes, but I believe this is a key element.

I realise that getting into comics can be difficult and intimidating. But this weekend is the perfect opportunity to try if you’ve not done so before. If you have a local comic shop go along and talk to the person behind the counter. Tell them the kind of genres that interest you, the type of stories you like, even the type of TV shows and books you read. They’ll be able to point you in the direction of a few different places to start. Getting into superhero comics can be difficult, with over 75 years of character history in some cases, but there again they can give you some good jumping on points. If you don’t have a local shop, then I’m happy to make suggestions myself. So tell me what kind of stories you enjoy, in any medium, and I’ll try to pair you up with some comics to suit your interests. There’s a lot going on in comics and if you’re reading them then you are missing out on some amazing stories.

 

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Coming About

The comics market is changing. That’s not news, it’s always changing and adapting. However what is perhaps news to some and is becoming more and more obvious to me, is that the Big2 publishers, Marvel and DC, are no longer the Final Destination for creators, probably writers more so than artists.

For years, breaking in (in my mind at least) meant doing some indy work, self publishing, doing enough work of some sort to get noticed so that someone further up the food chain said hey, let’s give this guy a one shot on Spider-Man Team Up, and see how he does on a Batman tie-in book. If it flies and sell well, then they give the writer or artist a bit more work until they develop into a named Talent. People start referring to the book as Johnny NewGuy’s Spider-Man or NewGuy’s Batman. At which point they’ve made it. Roll credits.

In the last, probably ten years or so, there’s been a shift. Talent, to one degree or another, has always done creator owned work alongside their work for hire gigs. Exclusive contracts used to be par for the course, now they’re rare. Working for one of the Big2 doesn’t guarantee X number of books per month anymore and therefore a steady income. Creators write for 3 or 4 or even 5 different publishers each month, to create a steady income which enables them to write comics full time.

A few years ago (before the Walking Dead was THE WALKING DEAD) and long before Robert Kirkman was known well outside the comics industry, he tried to inspire other comic creators to follow in his wake with a video, where his call to arms was mostly mocked or ignored. He tried to explain that the industry was changing, and that if you worked for the Big2 for the rest of your life, at the end of the day you’d be left with nothing. No creator rights to the characters, because it’s work for hire, so no pension of any kind and there’s no union for creators. No payouts if anyone adapts your character for another medium, which was also on the rise at the time.

He suggested that while you are in the spotlight and you do have an enthusiastic fan base and are a known named Talent, create something original that you will own 100%. Some in the industry listened, some said we’re already doing it, some just couldn’t take the risk of stepping away from a regular monthly salary to jump into the abyss and hope that the idea of a bungee cord became a reality before they hit the financial rock bottom. People have to pay the bills, put food on the table so there’s no blame being thrown around.

Another shift came, maybe five years ago, whereby the number of well known Talent, doing creator owned work alongside their Big2 was steadily increasing. For many reasons I don’t know, and a few that were discussed  at length in public, several well known creators walked away from the Big2. Some went into other industries, some self published, some produced comics via Kickstarter and creator owned books with other publishers, some worked for smaller publishers and the scales started to tip.

If they don’t already, then in a couple of months Image comics will have 10% of the monthly comics market. A few years ago, that 10% comprised of all of the independent comic book companies. In ten years I wonder what the landscape will look like and right now I suspect the split will be much more even three ways between the Big2 and all of the other publishers combined.

Now, more and more of these known creators, the Talent, with loyal fans are producing some of the most innovative and interesting comics in the industry. There are no IP rights to exploit, no shareholders to pacify, no limits. Now while the monthly sales figures for most of these creator owned titles are nowhere near those of the Big2, that is changing too. Saga was just outside of the top 20 sales figures for August 2013, and The Walking Dead was at number 12. However, the money the creators are receiving is still very healthy, because their slice of the pie is much bigger and there are fewer mouths to feed.

Just to clarify, the Big2 are not evil corporations. They’re not destroying the comics industry. They’re businesses with well known icons and IP, and they want to make money and tell stories. They want to promote their brands to as many people as they can across as many mediums as they can, be it TV, film, animation, merchandise or comics. Working for them is not working for the Dark Side, but now it’s not the end of the story, it’s just another step on the road. Creators who do work for them should be totally aware that anything they create does not belong to them. So if they want something that is completely their own, there are many opportunities and different avenues out there. You can have your cake and eat it. In fact, now is exactly the right time to do that.

New York Comic Con is running as we speak, and while the Big2 are coming out with lots of announcements, I’ve found I’m actually more interested in the creator owned series and independent work from the well known Talent because I have no idea of what they might do and where they might go. The deck is definitely shifting beneath my feet.

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Going Digital

Digital comics have been around for a while, but it wasn’t until a couple of years that things started to really get organised. There were various options out there for quite a while, reading comics as PDF documents, reading them in weird web browser versions, all sorts of stuff. Then the rise of tablets started, they became more popular and the price came down a little as many alternatives came out to the leading brand. Then a couple of prominent digital platforms sprang up for comics. Comic companies, keen to explore all new avenues of revenue, developed their own apps for the sale of their comics.

Roughly three years ago a comic rorschach the end is nighcompany tried their first day and date experiment, releasing the digital comic on the same day as the printed copy. The retailers kicked off, announced the physical comic shop was going to die as a result, the industry was doomed and digital comics were to blame. It turned out they were wrong. Digital comics sales didn’t cannibalise physical comics sales, in fact, over time as we saw a proliferation of digital comics, the opposite has happened. Sales of physical comics increased. Digital comics are simply another sales channel, and people are buying more comics as a result, sometimes double dipping (buying digital and then physical trade paperback collections).

Small aside. Mark Millar, isn’t a believer in digital comics. He’s a strong supporter of comic retailers. He thinks digital comics are just for casual fans. I think he’s wrong. He seems to be ignoring the obvious, not everyone has easy access to a comic shop. Not everyone can get physical comics regularly in other countries, and when they can get them, they may be months behind. So they can’t take part in any part of the worldwide comics community without having stories spoilt for them, they can’t read the websites, listen to the podcasts, attend the shows. Digital comics allows fans, anywhere in the world with internet access, the ability to be an active part of the comics community.

Despite being a lifelong comic book fan I know how intimidating comic shops can be to newcomers to the medium, and I’ve spoken about this many times so I won’t labour the point. Digital comics platforms allow an individual to browse as many comics as they want without any pressure to buy, or to be experts on everything straight away. Because there is a bit of that mentality in some comic shops and I hate to see it because it scares away new readers. With digital comics, people can find their own way, dig around, try a few comics and see what they like and don’t, and if they then want to, and feel comfortable enough, will visit their local comic shop. Hopefully. Because there are all sorts of treasures and artefacts in comic shops, like oversized hardback editions, limited edition special prints, rare comic covers by all sorts of artists, absolute editions, signed comics and a tonne of other stuff. Don’t even get me started on the joy of the monthly pull list. There’s also being an active part of your local comic community, attending local meet ups and events and conventions.

DC LogoIn 2011 DC comics rebooted their whole comic book line. Every single monthly comic book was reset and all 52 titles started over with a new number one. To attract new readers, to refresh everything, and to plant a flag in the sand. They also did something else very interesting and bold that no one had ever done before. Every single book was scheduled to be released on a day and date schedule. Again the retailers kicked off, cursed DC, promised not to stock their books, all sorts of stuff. There were discussions and compromises and now digital comics typically cost the same as physical comics for at least the first month, to encourage people to go into their local shop and buy the actual book. After a month or 6 weeks, the price of the digital version drops slightly, because by then, the physical comic is often off the shelves in the shop, so it’s no longer direct competition. A little while later Marvel followed suit and now many, if not all, of their titles are also available in a digital format on release day.

ComiXologyComiXology is now the largest digital comics retailer. They’re the iTunes of digital comics, selling comics from pretty much every large publisher and many smaller publishers. Recently they’ve even opened the doors a little, so really small indy publishers can submit their comics to appear on ComiXology. Other channels for digital comics are still available, but they’re the big dog.

So, that journey has been going on, and I’ve been watching it for the last few years very closely. Now I’m not a gadget guy. I don’t like cars, don’t want the latest phone, don’t care about brands or fashion, it’s just not my thing. I’m definitely not an e-book reader. I love physical books. I understand why ereaders are useful and why some people like ebooks, and again I see them as another channel, but they’re not for me. I had the same attitude to digital comics for a long time too. Then I ended up with a tablet. Essentially I did some work for hire and I received the tablet as payment.

So, I downloaded a few digital comics. There are things I don’t like about digital comics, and I still buy and prefer physical comics, but my initial dislike has now shifted. I sometimes double dip, buy the first couple of issues of a title and if I enjoy it, I will switch to physical trade paperback collections which I buy from my local comic shops. I sometimes buy digital only comics, those crafted for mobile devices. About a year ago I tried an experiment, to read a monthly comic book only in digital format and see what happened. Sadly, through no fault of my own, the experiment ended, as the title I was following ran into trouble and it disappeared after 2 issues.

bat19So now I’m trying the experiment again. Batwing, one of the new 52 monthly comic book titles from DC, recently went through a refresh, with a new pair of writers and a shift in the story. It’s a great jumping on point, I like the writers and artist, so now I’m on board.

I’m going to try and read it on a monthly basis, digitally, and see what the experience is like. Hopefully this title will be around for a while so I will have some time to explore a longer story, but purely from a digital standpoint. I can already see some pros and cons, but I’ll come back to this in a few months and do another post.

As ever, if you’re interested in getting into comics, want to read them but don’t know where to start, then get in touch and I’m always happy to point you to some titles to match your interests and favourite genres.

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YA Comic Books

This idea has been somewhere in the back of my mind for a while, but it came together last week when Marvel Comics announced that they are launching a series of YA novels, based on their superhero characters. The first two announced are She-Hulk and Rogue, written by Marta Acosta and Christine Woodward and they will be published by Hyperion. I’m going to be stay optimistic. I’m going to say I’m excited by these and I hope they do very well. And I’m not being disingenuous. I want young people, those under 25, especially those under 20, to be interested in comic book characters, whether that’s from Marvel, DC or other publishers.

Superhero comics dominate the US comic book market, but in other countries superheroes are not the main focus. Despite the diversity that now exists in the US market, the majority of the top 100 comics every month are superhero titles. There are exceptions (Walking Dead, Saga etc) but mostly it’s superheroes.

In the last 2 years both Marvel and DC have had one of their biggest reboots and relaunches in a long time. Not just a bit of a tweak, but an almost (almost!) wipe the slate clean and start from issue 1 across the board at DC. Marvel took a right turn and all titles are gradually relaunching with new creators and very new directions. All of which has been great for me, as a lifelong comic book fan. Sales are good in general, but my gut tells me that the percentage of brand new comic book fans, coming into Marvel or DC for the first time because of these initiatives, is very small. My gut also tells me that not many of those were women.

DC and Marvel are always actively seeking new writers and they do mentor new writers. They pair them up with an established creator who helps them learn the ropes. We’ve seen this time and again at Marvel and now some of their most interesting and unique writers were once being mentored. Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction are two names that immediately spring to mind. DC are also doing it as well, and people like James Tynon IV first partnered with Scott Synder before writing solo books. It’s a tried and tested method.

Both companies also bring in writers from other mediums, TV, film and novelists. Sometimes it works out very well and we get writers like Duane Swierczynski and Allan Heinberg, both of who have done some very memorable work for Marvel and DC. Sometimes it doesn’t work and we get Jodi Piucoult. I am sure she is a lovely person and I know her novels sell very well, but her run on Wonder Woman was very short and she’s not been invited back. Her view of the character did not gel with the audience, sales were poor, and they tried a different approach with a new creative team.

I’m very aware that women read comics and superhero comics, but I think there are more men reading them than women. I also think it’s fairly safe to say that the percentage of new and young readers coming into the books is fairly small. I’m also pretty sure that if you took the average age of a mainstream comic book fan, it would be twenty or thirty something, if not older.

Here’s a wacky idea to get more new readers and more women reading comics. Perhaps, in addition to the YA books, Marvel and DC should hire some YA authors to write their teen comic books. As I mentioned above, it doesn’t always work out and if the person is not a fan of comics to begin with, or is not at least familiar with the medium, then the chances of success are fairly small. But I know of several YA authors, most of them women, who are massive comic book fans and I know they would love to write comics. Can and do some of them write their own independent comics? Yes. But getting noticed and getting the word out about one of those comics is a lot more difficult. Also, both of the big companies have some very well known brands and icons that are immediately recogniseable. It’s a lot easier to convince someone to take a chance and spend their money on a new Supergirl comic than something they’ve never heard of before.

I’m sure most, if not all of the YA writers, would need to be mentored first, and during that co-writing phase both the lead writer and the company would find out if it was working or not. But imagine if it worked. A Teen Titans book, written for a YA audience. Now this isn’t me dumping on any of the teen focused books that have gone before, because I have read and enjoyed some of them. But DC in particular made an effort to put some of their comics into sections. Here are the Dark books (Vertigo-esque) grouped into The Edge, here are the Teen books, here are the Batman books etc. So with the relaunch I’m not the target audience for Teen Titans.

In theory, it would also mean that if more younger readers jumped on board with the teen books and assuming they keep reading for several years, they would eventually progress to the mainstream titles. It would also mean more women reading comics, more female role models working in the industry, and hopefully more women who become mainstream comic book writers. The number of women writing at both companies, who are working on major icons, is tiny.

I’m not privy to what is going on behind closed doors at the Big 2, and I’m sure those who are may instantly reject my idea for a number of reasons, or perhaps if I am being optimistic, these sort of talks are already taking place. From an outsiders viewpoint, it seems like a sensible and logical idea to me. It ties together some of what they are already doing and it would tackle one of the biggest problems in mainstream comics. It wouldn’t solve everything but it would be a step in the right direction.

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