10 April 2012

NEW DAY RISING


So here's something:

The other day, I was talking shop with a local comic book store owner, and while we were on the phone, I launched into a tangent about trying to track down an issue of Jeff Smith's Bone back in the early '90s.

I was living in Riverside, CA at the time, and I'd just discovered Bone at Comic-Con in San Diego. I think I bought a pack of the first six issues or so directly from Jeff. After reading those, I was hooked, so I went out looking for the recently-released seventh issue one weekend.

The first store I visited didn't carry it.

Scratch that: They proudly didn't carry it.

"We only order that book for pull list customers," the guy at the counter said, as though that was somehow a good thing.

I noted that both Jeff Smith and the series were the focus of growing acclaim, but that made no difference.

"Books like that never last."

Even though I made it clear I had absolutely zero intention of starting a pull list, but would be more than happy to pay in advance to make sure a copy or two made it onto the new comics shelf, nothing I said could convince this guy to budge in his belief that Bone simply was not worth his time.

I wound up visiting three other local shops and leaving all of them empty-handed before simply waiting until the work week started again and buying the book at a store near Extreme Studios in Anaheim.

It's worth mentioning, I think, that the four stores that didn't carry Bone are no longer in business.

Jeff Smith, meanwhile, and Bone, have gone on to huge success.

In many ways, though, Jeff defied the odds, because in the grand scheme of comics, Bone was neither fish nor foul. Or rather, it was neither a superhero comic, nor a book published by one of the top mainstream publishers.

Thinking about that story after I recounted it, it occurred to me that for some time now, conventional wisdom has been that mainstream superheroes are a virtually unstoppable force in comics – the bread and butter of the comics business.

First there were DC's superheroes, starting with Superman back in the 1930s, and then there were Marvel's, coming of age in the 1960s with the likes of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Other companies – Image very much included amongst them – developed their own superhero comics, but somewhere along the way, a kind of thinking took hold wherein anything that wasn't a superhero comic was greeted with, if not outright suspicion, then something less than unbridled enthusiasm.  "All-new and all-different" somehow became viewed as more of a threat than an opportunity.

But here's another something:

Over the last 20 years or so, the vast majority of the lasting new contributions to comics have not been superhero comics.

Just what I came up with off the top of my head is a pretty staggering list of successful non-mainstream/non-superhero titles, and it's far from complete:

Sandman
From Hell
Bone
Sin City
Spawn
Hellboy
Strangers In Paradise
The Invisibles
Preacher
Astro City
Berlin
Stray Bullets
Black Hole
Optic Nerve
Ghost World
It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken
Transmetropolitan
Planetary
Promethea
100 Bullets
Acme Novelty Library/Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
Age of Bronze
Persepolis
Powers
Runaways
The Goon
Invincible
Sleeper
Y: The Last Man
The Walking Dead
Fables
Blankets
Wanted
Scott Pilgrim
The Umbrella Academy
Fun Home
I Kill Giants
DMZ
The Nightly News
Scalped
Hark! A Vagrant Story
Kick-Ass
Criminal
We3
Mouse Guard
Chew
Daytrippers
Locke and Key
Essex County
American Vampire
Asterios Polyp
King City

Out of the 52 titles I listed, there's only one from the Marvel Universe – Runaways – and while there's a combined 16 books from Vertigo, WildStorm and America's Best Comics, none from DC Comics proper. 

There are only 10 superhero comics, less than one tenth of the overall list, and in the case of things like Planetary, Powers, Promethea and The Umbrella Academy, they're only superhero comics by the most superficial definition of the term.

Have their been important comics from Marvel and DC? Of course – MarvelsKingdom Come, Civil WarAll-Star SupermanUltimate Spider-ManThe Ultimates, etc. – but since they're all based on existing characters, no matter how good they are, they don't meet the criteria of "new."

I've read here and there online that it's somehow unfair to expect Marvel or DC to do anything other than look after their vast back catalogues of characters, because that's the nature of their business. I'd accept that as a fair point if not for the fact that the Vertigo titles listed above – Sandman, Y: The Last Man, Fables, etc. – have been a legitimate source of growth for them over the last 20 years.

Another case in point? When Image Comics started, the company's main stock in trade was superhero comics. Today, books like Saga, The Walking Dead and Fatale are our best selling titles. Not a one is a superhero comic. Not a one is more than 10 years old. 

My point in all this? 

Simple: Regardless who publishes what – "all-new and all-different" is where it's at these days. And judging by the sheer volume of amazing material published over the last 20 years, that's been the case for a while now. 

There will always be superheroes (which is good news for me, actually, because I continue to have a tremendous fondness for them), but I suspect that over time, their perceived dominance over the comics market will diminish, not to their detriment, but as a testament to a greater, more vibrant comics industry. It's a new day rising for diversity in content – and that means a better future for all of us.

Something to think about, anyway.