Thursday, December 30, 2004

2004: The Year in Comics

And another year has come and gone. I think this year particularly deserves reflection, both in terms of comics and my own life. (Yes, I do distinguish between the two.) So, today and tomorrow, please accept these little essays on just those subjects, along with a look towards 2005. Tonight, comics.

So much happens in a year, it’s perhaps unfair to assign a singular quality to the entire calendar. This year, however, featured a great deal of either endings or beginnings. It seems this would be a year of transition, although from what and to what is uncertain.

Marvel and DC led the news this year, as they always do. The watchword for both companies was “Event.” DC launched what appears to be a “bold new direction” for the entire universe with “Identity Crisis” a series that turned out to be part murder mystery and part retroactive meddler in continuity. The series had its defenders, but a good number of fans have been up in arms since April, what with the grisly deaths of super-spouse Sue Dibny and Dad Wonder Jack Drake, as well as actions taken by certain members of the Justice League. The revelations (or lack thereof) in the series’ final issue did little to quiet these dissenters, and the 3-month Bat-crossover “War Games” certainly didn’t help. Here, the trouble came from a plot that fails to suspend even the most liberal disbelief, the ignoble death of fan-favorite character Spoiler, and Batman acting less and less the hero throughout. DC has already announced its next big events (yes, plural) for 2005, and the early image of Batman carrying what appears to be Nightwing’s corpse from March’s “Countdown” one-shot isn’t allaying any fears.

Not to be outdone, Marvel threw no less than four big event series at the readers this year. The first, Secret War, has already been plagued by lateness, and this is a book solicited on a quarterly schedule. Brian Bendis also made his presence known on the Avengers, ending the series just as it reached its 500th issue. “Avengers Disassembled” was fiercely attacked and defended by the fan community; as yet, the sales on the replacement “New Avengers” title would appear to give the defenders the win. Nevertheless, critics continue to blast “Disassembled” for its mostly non-sensical plot, out-of-characterizations, poor pacing, and transparent status as a “clearing the board” story. Ancillary stories taking place in Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Spectacular Spider-Man were met with mixed reactions; the relaunches of Cap and Iron Man are doing well so far, but there is trepidation about next year’s Thor and Young Avengers releases. And speaking of the old web-head, J. Michael Straczynski made big waves with “Sins Past,” a storyline in which Spidey is confronted by the illegitimate (and rapidly-aging) children of his dead girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Once again, the negative response was strong; ironically, a Spider-Writer hasn’t suffered criticism of this level since Howard Mackie, the man JMS replaced in 2001. And of course the mutants couldn’t be left out; May saw a “Reload” of the line’s core books following the departure of Grant Morrison from New X-Men, and the launching of some new titles, with more to come in the summer. Of the core books, the best-received is Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, while long-timer Chris Claremont’s Uncanny and Excalibur have been mixed, and Marvel was quick to drop Chuck Austen from X-Men. As for the ancillary books, most are dwindling in sales, and more than a few have been canceled already. Most fans agree that Marvel is simply glutting the market with more mutant books than it can support.
Speaking of canceled books, the tragedy from both companies this year is the number of high-quality, low-selling books that vanish from the racks because of simple lack of promotion. Marvel took a lot of hits in this category, particularly with its Tsunami titles Runaways and Sentinel. The former returns in February with what will hopefully be a better marketing plan; the latter is dead in the water. Also of note are She-Hulk, one of the most critically acclaimed titles of the year that was nevertheless canceled with issue 12 (supposedly to receive a relaunch similar to that of Runaways) and MadroX, and mutant-aligned crime noir miniseries that’s been very well received by the few who are reading it. On the DC side, the three big stories are Fallen Angel, Hard Times, and Plastic Man. All are highly acclaimed by fans and critics, all have deplorable sales, and all have questionable fates as of this writing: Hard Times goes on hiatus after issue 12, Fallen Angel gets two issues of reprieve starting in March, and Plastic Man, the Eisner Award winner for Best New Series, is going bi-monthly in January. In all cases, the blame falls square on the heads of marketing; DC either doesn’t know how to or is uninterested in promoting these books. For shame.

DC’s Vertigo line continued oblivious to all this, putting out its unusual fair in about the same ratio of good-to-crap as it always does. Marvel’s attempt to duplicate that success, EPIC, received the mercy killing many predicted when ex-Publisher Bill Jemas was shuffled aside.

Not that smaller publishers are doing any better. Mark Alessi’s grand experiment, Crossgen Comics, went belly-up in June, leaving numerous unpaid creditors, some of them creators. The lucky survivors have landed at other companies, and most of the intellectual assets (i.e., characters and trademarks) have been bought up by Disney, although whether or not they’ll ever see the light of day in comic form is up in the air. The fallout also led to financial disaster for partner company MV Creations, who are currently in deep debt and have lost their lucrative Masters of the Universe license. Dreamwave, which has been riding high on its own license of Hasbro’s Transformers, may be on the brink of losing it, and have already come under fire from two high-profile creators for failure to pay. Current odds are 50-50 as to whether it will return after New Year’s. Even the seemingly unassailable Image went through its own shake-ups, as co-founder Erik Larsen replaced other co-founder Jim Valentino as Publisher for the creator-owned giant, and linchpin studio Todd McFarlane Productions filed Chapter 11 proceedings due to the infamous Tony Twist lawsuit.

Dark Horse and Oni, the last two big names, are moving along just fine, thank goodness. DH in particular is gearing up for a big Star Wars push as the Episode III release date nears, and has also received acclaim for its new Conan series by Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord. Oni mostly stayed under the radar, but its much-beloved niche properties (Hopeless Savages, Queen and Country, and more) continue to make its existence profitable.

Self-publishing brought some very good, if little-reported, news to 2004. Jeff Smith’s Bone and Dave Sim’s Cerebus both finished their landmark runs; Smith followed up with the mammoth One Volume Edition (which ended up on many fans’ X-Mas lists) and a deal with Scholastic to reprint the series in color trade volumes next year. This would definitely please Michael Chabon, who made an impassioned plea at this year’s Eisner Awards dinner (reprinted here: http://www.comic- ), imploring the industry to produce more excellent comics for children. He might have gotten his wish early, as new imprint Papercutz announced that it would be starting new series based on the popular kids’ detective characters the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

And that, in a forced segue, brings us to the 800 pound Japanese gorilla: Manga. Without a doubt, Japanese comics are kicking the living crap out of US comics everywhere but in the comics stores (and even there, it’s a damn close race). Viz, Tokyopop, et. al. have conquered the newsstand and bookstore markets that US publishers all but abandoned in the 90’s. The debate rages on about whether or not the manga boom will last, what kind of changes the American companies will have to make to compete, and how long the current, tenuous state of affairs can last. Some companies have tried inching into the digest market, but the key difference between manga and US comics, diversity of material, remains, and none of the big companies show any sign of taking that plunge.

And, in the meantime, almost ignored by the industry itself, is the continuing rise of respectability. Spider-Man 2 was another blockbuster hit, and the animated film The Incredibles burned up the box office, but there was more to it than that. The Beat’s Heidi McDonald (from whom I’m cribbing most of this conclusion, because one of the key tenets of writing is “Steal from the best”) described the media coverage as “daily,” and she’s not far off. Comics are continuing to rise in the public mind, and maybe, just maybe, the industry is finally crawling back from the crippling damage of the 90’s. But will the future be dominated by those who owned the past? It’s not sure yet at this point, but big boys in publishing (Scholastic, Tor, Crown, Penguin) are floating their own programs, and their success or failure could determine how comics are perceived in the coming century. And if they do succeed, where does that leave the Big Diamond Boys? At this point, the “mainstream” of comics is in a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” situation: perpetuate the current system in spite of increasing liabilities and drawbacks, or throw caution to the wind and work up a new model for the changing industry, which may mean discarding old, beloved models and, worse, jettisoning much of the current reader base that’s kept it afloat these past ten years.

I don’t know what they’ll do. I don’t know what the right course for comics is. But I do know that the decisions made in 2005 will cement which way the industry goes, for good or ill.

Get your helmets on, people. This ride’s gonna be a bitch.

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