by Wayne Markley
2009 has been a very interesting year in the comic book business. It has been a time of changes in both creative and the business ends of comics. There have been some excellent books and there have been a number of flops. Marvel and DC continued with their major epics (Dark Reign and Blackest Night) and superheroes dominated the comic book world. What follows are some random thoughts about the comics book industry in 2009. They are not in any particular order or topic. And they are all just my opinion and do not reflect the opinions of Westfield or anyone else. So away we go.
Diamond Comic Distributors changed their policies about what they carry, forcing changes in some of my favorite books. Diamond Comic Distributors (DCD) is the largest, and for all practical purposes the only, comic distributor of English language comics. They changed their policies this year about the minimal dollar amount of copies a book must sell for Diamond to offer the said title. While this is a behind the scenes deal, which was so Diamond can make a profit distributing certain titles, which no one can fault them for, it forced changes to a number of titles. One example of this is AC Comics. The publisher of Femforce and reprint collections of old comics stories (Crypt of Horror for example). They were forced to raise the page count and price of their books and to cut the frequency to make the minimum dollars Diamond requires. AC was more than willing to do this to keep their books going through the direct market, but at $30 an issue it is even too much for me, a hard core fan, to pay. Another example is Cerebus Archives, a fun little comic that I am sure sells next to nothing, but it takes you behind the scenes of the very early self publishing done by Dave Sim and his attempts to do comics before hitting upon Cerebus. While Diamond dropped this title, it is still available for mail-order through a small company that both distributes the book and now prints it. I imagine it also greatly reduces the number of copies sold since not that many people are as fascinated by the interesting history presented in Cerebus Archives. A third example is Diamond dropped Cinebooks. There were very nice full color graphic novels from Europe with stories ranging from fantasy to spies to adventure. Recently Ceinebooks announced that they will be doing Agent XIII and a new Lucky Luke graphic novel. It will be interesting to see if Diamond picks Cinebooks back up with their new announcements which may make their minimums. These changes are not a knock on Diamond as they are doing what they need to do to for their business, but it does show some of the inherent problems with the current comic book industry that is built on dependence of the direct market and superheroes.
This leads into my next subject: the return of Disney Comics to the comic book world. Around the world, outside of the United States, the classic Disney characters star in some of the best selling comics. In the United States they have never found an audience outside of a set number of hardcore collectors of Carl Bark, and the other classic Disney artists. The latest company to take a try and publishing the Disney Comics is Boom Studios. To their credit, Boom has taken a unique approach and instead of targeting their books to the traditional Disney collector, they have chosen European Disney stores that use the cornerstones of Disney (Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Uncle Scrooge, etc.) in very modern settings, and has stories of magic trying to capture the Harry Potter fans, a super-hero group of traditional Disney characters trying for the superhero crowd, secret agents, and other gimmicks. All of these stories are originally from Europe, and are reprinted here for the first time. And they are fun and my hat is off to them in an attempt to market Disney Comics outside of the hard core fan base. But I have my doubts that this will work as the traditional fans are turning away from these new stories and it is very, very hard to reach a new and younger audience that these books are aimed at. Boom is still doing the classic material in high priced hardcover collections, (see my last blog for a review of Walt Disney’s Christmas Classics HC). I wish them all the luck in the world, but I wish there was a happy medium with reasonably priced classic material and these new versions of the classic characters.
Next is the flood of reprints of classic comic strips. If there is one thing I love more than comics books it is a good comics strip. 2009 has seen a huge reprinting of some of the best strips. We have seen the first volume of the Complete Rip Kirby, new additions to the ongoing reprinting of Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy, a beautiful new edition of Prince Valiant as well a collection of the first years worth of Price Valiant by Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni. There was also an overlooked James Bond Omnibus collection that reprints this classic strip in the order they first appeared. If you have never read these strips they are worth a look. They are far closer to the books than the movies, but they are still great. And we cannot forget to mention the complete collection of Sam’s Strip, a classic strip that my fellow blogger KC Carlson would rave about to me, and having finally read this collection from Fantagraphics, I agree with him completely. It is a must read. And coming in 2010 are the complete Phantom, Al Williamson’s Secret Agent Corrigan, Russ Heath’s Lone Ranger and I am sure many more. My only hope is, as comics so often do (as well as movies), once something starts to get a following everyone jumps on the band wagon and dilutes it to the point that no one can afford to buy everything that is being published and the fan and retailer stops buying these books and a nice little niche is crushed.
Another source of comics that has come into its own over the last year is Online Comics. Yes, online comics have been around for a long time know, but 2009 saw a few of them come into prominence as “mainstream” publishers printed these online comics in the traditional hard copy paper versions. There were two that stood out for me. First is Zuda Comics from DC. So far they have published two collection, Bayou which I would highly recommend, and High Moon. Secondly, over at Dark Horse, they have continued to collect their online comic, MySpace Dark Horse Presents. The forth volume came out this fall it is one of the best anthologies out there. You will find stories from top creators like Joss Whedon and Jeff Smith, to people you may have never heard off, but are as good as Joss or Jeff. These fairly priced trades are well worth your time to check out. As well as the actual online MySpace Dark Horse Presents site. Each volume is filled with everything Umbrella Academy to Usagi Yojimbo to Conan, from slice-of-life to science fiction to humor.
My final two notes for 2009 involve specific creators/people. The first one is J. Michael Straczynski who I would argue is perhaps the best writer of the year. He took Thor from a classic character that could not find an audience to becoming one of the most interesting books being published. Unfortunately he recently left Thor to go to work for DC, where lo and behold, he is writing some of their best comics. He wrote four excellent books re-introducing the Archie Superheroes back into the DC Universe – Web, Shield, Hangman, and the Hood. He only wrote the four issues reintroducing the characters into the DC Universe, but he set up a world that makes you want to keep reading these characters even after he has left the books. He also took over the Brave and the Bold, and since he did, it has become my favorite DC book (along with Jonah Hex). He has taken a book that has been floundering for a direction, and made it into a standalone book, each issue topping the one before, and using characters that even a long time and hard core fan such as myself enjoys, such as Brother Power the Geek, Blackhawks, Dr. Fate and others. While there is not a collection of any of these books yet, it is well worth trying to find the single issues of any these books.
One change this year that will have major implications to the comics we all love is the stepping down of Paul Levitz as the publisher of DC Comics. Paul is the ultimate fan boy done good having gone from publishing a fanzine (The Comics Reader) to an intern, to President and Publisher of DC. Under Paul there has been such amazing things as the complete reprinting of Will Eisner’s Spirit and the Jack Kirby Library, too many innovations in publishing to mention, to some of the best comics around. Paul is returning to writing, where he is without question a master (just read any of his Legion or Aquaman stories), but depending on which direction DC goes under a new publisher, 2010 could be the best year for comics in a very long time – or maybe not.
These are just a few things that stuck me in 2009. I welcome and would love to hear from readers of this column what they think are biggest events and changes in comics in 2009. As always I can be reached at MFBWAY@Aol.com.
Brave & the Bold #32