Journal of the Emerald Specter 93: State of the Comics Industry

There is a great disturbance in the comics industry. Things are looking both grim and hopeful and I’d like to talk a little bit about that now.

As long as I’ve been collecting comics Marvel and DC have dominated the scene. They are, admittedly, the largest two comic book producers in the market, but recently they have been joined by two more “big companies” (Image and Dark Horse) and a whole slew of smaller companies (Valiant, Boom!, Dynamite, IDW Publishing, Lion Forge, Aftershock, Aspen, and Titan to name a few).

The basis of the industry has always been the floppy, or the single issue. Everyone used to play around with different formats in the past but the tried and true means of selling comics has been 22 to 24 page single issues. While there can be many issues that make up a single story, there can also be a single, self contained story within a single issue.

Over the last couple of decades, though, the term “writing for the trade” has come up as being a means of writing stories. A trade paperback, for those not in the know, are six issues collected into one large graphic novel like book. There has not only been a trend in writing for a trade, there has also been a movement in simply waiting for the trade and skipping the floppies.

There is an occasional original graphic novel, or OGN, that comes out of the big four, but most of the OGNs are independent creators putting out stories they can tell in one lump rather than dribbling it out over a monthly floppy schedule.

If floppies are the comics industry’s version of TV, then OGNs are the comics industry’s version of movies. In the end, this is really what the column is going to be about.

Marvel and DC have long standing histories, continuity, that they seek to maintain in their current stories, despite the illogical problem of explaining away decades of continuity by stating that time doesn’t flow the same way in their respective universes. Marvel has stated that despite 75 years haven taken place in the real world, only about 12 years has passed in the Marvel Universe.

First, I’d like to talk about looking at the history and talk about why continuity is so important… to Marvel and DC.

There is a subset of fans that read Marvel and DC that insists that continuity be maintained. Superman has to be from another planet, lands on this planet, and has had every single adventure that he’s had in comic form. Captain America also has to have every single adventure that he’s ever had. No matter how ridiculous, everything that they’ve done has to have been done.

DC has somewhat gotten around the diehards by having their “Crisis” events, which resets the DC continuity (or at least that’s what they hope) and then they move forward. There are subsets of these fans that only really like “pre-Crisis” or “post-Crisis” events, even to include the recent Flashpoint (which launched the New 52) and so on.

As far as DC is concerned, I was a big proponent of the New 52 because it relaunched their entire company with only about “five years of history” build into the revision. Most people reviled it so they dumped it. There was so much more awesome that could have been told.

Marvel has also attempted to do little things to “soft retcon” their line. Things like “Heroes Reborn” (a retelling of the origins of the Fantastic Four, Captain America, and a few others) to update their origin stories… but then they were reintroduced into the continuity as if they’d only been momentarily taken out of time. While these soft retcon (short for “retroactive continuity”) attempts didn’t really do anything to further their hopes, Marvel did do something that was revolutionary and totally awesome: Ultimate Marvel.

In 2000, Brian Michael Bendis was handed Spider-Man (under the Ultimate Marvel imprint) and told to tell the Marvel Universe over again… from scratch. Ultimate Marvel ran for more than a decade and is largely the basis for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s origins of the heroes, but Ultimate Marvel stopped hindering themselves with over 50 years of continuity. Ultimate Marvel also did something that neither DC nor Marvel has dared do in their “main continuities”: allow changes in the world to happen as a result of their heroes.

In the Ultimate Marvel line, X-Men are still hated by many and that has led to sweeping changes in how the governments of the world react to them. This fundamentally changed the world in which they live, unlike in the 616 (Marvel’s main continuity) where nothing really changes. Technology that the Fantastic Four created crept into the Ultimate Marvel world, unlike the 616 where even though Reed Richards has a flying car no one else seems to have technology anywhere near that.

Basically, I’m saying that Ultimate Marvel was glorious and awesome because it affected the world in which they live. Not having Tony Stark’s armor tech seep out into the world, even little useful bits of it, is unrealistic. Fanboys will cry about Ultimate Marvel not being realistic, but in the end, they look and sound ridiculous because they’re reading a world that never gets changed by the things that happen in it.

I made a comment a while back on a forum that I tend to peruse from time to time that if Marvel’s 616 has 75 years of published materials but only 12 years have passed, that means the Avengers change their lineup about twice a week and have an announcement about their lineup changes every other week. How can Captain America lead the Avengers against the greatest threats if he’s busy announcing the new members from what they had two weeks ago?

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Since the industry is changing, actively, speculators are starting to see what the future of the industry is: trades. If writers are going to write towards the trades anyway, why doesn’t the floppy disappear and allow the readership to just read trades instead?

This would mean (for Marvel and DC) a quarterly (at most) release schedule on their most popular heroes. Sure, there would be some snags in this, like new heroes not being created and flopped stories being highlighted all the more because of less material, but there are too many people waiting to get the trades instead of the floppies anyway. Why not just make the plunge now?

I’ve got a better idea, though. Instead of “writing for the trade” or releasing just a trade paperback in a quarterly fashion, why not do an OGN version of the MCU?

Hear me out.

You put a creative team on Captain America and tell them to write a graphic novel about a particular adventure that Cap is going to have. They can include things that other creative teams are doing on their own assignments or they can just keep themselves self contained. Six months later you have a 200 page Captain America story that is better than what we would have gotten in six floppies or a trade.

Now, you have many teams working on many projects like this… Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, etc… you have them use the same process I said for Captain America but you aren’t trying to eek out six months of floppies on each title and you’re allowing for complete stories to be told that are far more interesting.

Sure, Captain America might only come out once or twice a year, but the story that is in each OGN is far better than you would have gotten in floppies. Utilize an MCU approach by building up a decade worth of OGNs and you have a comic version of the Avengers in the MCU that would be just as epic. After a decade, or however long they decide to run their epic length OGN universe, they could just say “ok, this story has been told” and begin again with new titles, heroes, and a new epic length story.

Wouldn’t that be better?

DC could have a Superman OGN that tells a complete, updated origin for him which lead to a great OGN. Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and the lot could each get theirs, building on the appearance of the “first hero” and have their own epic decade long tale. Just like my Marvel example, you could just tell everyone you’re done and restart when it’s time to do something different.

No more rebooting every couple years. No more retconning decades of history. No more wondering why technology isn’t helping the world even though the beneficial heroes could save lives by handing it out.

This OGN universe theory also solves another problem: constant relaunching titles.

Every third week there seems to be a long standing title (Superman, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, or Justice League) that ends it’s 25 or whatever issue run to be “relaunched with a new #1!” That’s BS and the companies know it.

Their reasoning for using this method of selling comics is that they want to bring in new readers, and apparently they think new readers only come in when there is a #1 issue. I’d like to argue that you lose more readers than you gain by relaunching every other year just to have a shiny new #1 on a cover.

The industry could be doing more to keep themselves working at an optimal level but they seem beholden to the old model. If I were in charge of the companies, I’d start looking at moving to the new model ASAP, because there may be a gap if they don’t get their ducks in a row soon.

And by “gap,” I mean something catastrophic for the sales departments of the companies.