Each and every December, the reporters of CBR News gather to take a look back at the year gone by. We review the events and trends of the past fifty-two weeks, and occasionally debate their significance when we come to different conclusions. It's our chance to play "armchair quarterback" for the comic book industry.
This year, however, marks something special – the end of the first decade of the 21st century. A lot has occurred in the world of comics in the past ten years, and trying to write a review all of it seemed suicidal...but we've done it anyway!
Over the next several days, the reporters of CBR News will be revisiting the events of the past decade that were noteworthy for us. We naturally couldn't include every single moment of the last ten years, but we sure did try. What follows are the opinions of several highly qualified, well-read (and occasionally underpaid) writers, including Tim Callahan, Shaun Manning, Kiel Phegley, Dave Richards, Steve Sunu, George Tramountanas, and Josh Wigler.
All of us hope you enjoy this look back over the years starting with the rise of NuMarvel and the sweeping changes that took place when...
Joe Quesada Becomes EIC and Bill Jemas Becomes Publisher for Marvel Comics
And now? I'll happily admit: I was wrong-wrong-wrong. Quesada has been the best thing to happen to Marvel since Stan Lee. It's been a long time since an EIC was so strongly associated with the company. I'd argue that the last time this occurred, the EIC was Jim Shooter, and while he gave Marvel a definite direction, the stories about his time at Marvel are legendary...but not always in a positive way.
Quesada is viewed by creators as "one of them." He understands what it takes to make comics, how to keep them relevant, and how to keep his workers happy. Just look at the stable of talent Marvel currently employs: Brian Bendis, Mark Millar, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Jason Aaron, Rick Remender, and so many, many others. It's an embarrassment of riches.
Now, before I get ahead of myself, I should mention the role Bill Jemas played, because it was an important one. While Jemas left on a somewhat sour note in 2004, his contributions in those first few years are undeniable. If you'll recall, he and Quesada were a duo act: the Bill and Joe Show. Together, they managed several initiatives that set Marvel on the right foot to bring the company to where it is at the end of this decade:
Securing great talent for Marvel - Who else would have put the writer of "Jinx" and "Sam and Twitch" on an all-ages "Ultimate Spider-Man"? And putting JMS on "Amazing Spider-Man" and Grant Morrison on "New X-Men" were also brilliant moves.
Established a trade paperback program - I think Marvel, more than any other company, are responsible for creating a viable trade paperback program. It was such a beautiful system: monthlies, trade paperback, and finally oversized hardcover. This has gotten lost lately with the introduction of pricier "premiere hardcover" editions, but as long as I can eventually get my cheaper TPB's, I'll forgive them. This trade program is also partially to blame for the rise in decompressed storytelling that we've seen in this decade, but you take the good with the bad...
Started the MAX line - A line of comic books for adults? What a novel concept!
Said farewell to the Comics Code Authority - The two made a move that was long overdue. You don't see a censoring organization for non-graphic literature, do you?
And those were just the moves made at the beginning of the decade. So much has happened since then! Stephen King books at Marvel! Huge crossovers! A digital presence! Movies! Disney! Ten years later, Quesada is still leading and Marvel is stronger than ever. I can't wait to see where the company will be in 2020!
Tim Callahan: I'm sure Quesada has made some bad decisions (not everything can work out the way we want it to), but the stuff he gets flak for is the stuff that's worked out for the best. He made Spider-Man comics readable again, and if he had to sacrifice a marriage to do it, then so be it. He has brought in some of the best writers and artists in the biz, and he's turned Marvel into a powerhouse. Bill Jemas may not have lasted very long, but Quesada has made his mark, and he should be proud of his accomplishments.
Shaun Manning: Joe definitely plays the long game and is willing to take his lumps for it. "One More Day," probably his most infamous editorial decision, deserved a lot of the criticism it got as a story. I could go into a quite specific rant about why this story and its aftermath created problems for me as a reader - and no, I suspect it's not the one you've heard a million times before - but even I recognize that, in all likelihood, Mr. Quesada is right: having Peter as a perpetually-single dude is better for Spider-Man in the long run. And with some incredible talent attached, the thrice-monthly "Amazing Spider-Man" is once again a top-notch superhero adventure.
Spidey aside, Marvel's doing some exciting stuff right now, and a lot of it bears the mark of Joe Quesada's vision. Over the last several years, Marvel has managed to put top talent on top books while still managing to foster new creators. The team of Craig Kyle and Chris Yost quickly became one of my favorite storytelling engines on "New X-Men: Academy X," and given their increasing prominence in the X-Men line, I'd wager I'm not alone. Before that, Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" was a thing of beauty. And, yeah, the trade program had a bumpy start for a few reasons, but the idea that a storyline will be collected into an honest-to-goodness book has changed the way we read and buy comics and lent our medium a bit of extended life in the bookstore market.
Dave Richards: Joe Quesada definitely has a good eye for the potential of stories, creators, and editors. Under his leadership, Marvel has assembled the best team of writers in comics. And even when his ideas lead to events that I don't like or agree with (like the aforementioned "One More Day"), they set up some amazing stories ("Amazing Spider-Man" is currently the best it's been in a long time).
Kiel Phegley: There's doubtlessly plenty to say about the best and the worst comic books produced under Quesada's tenure as Editor-in-Chief – both in terms of critical and cultural merit and the various fanboy debates that make gristle for the internet outrage mill. But one thing that's proven pretty damn true is that, ups and downs aside, the publishing program put together by Quesada and Jemas has been extremely successful for the business. NuMarvel helped the company completely corner the direct market and catapulted Marvel Comics to a place of market power that no one thought they'd be able to achieve after they: A) damn near drove the whole enterprise under, thanks to Ron Perelman and company, and then B) went bankrupt.
Some days, I think it's pretty insane that there even still is a Marvel Comics, let alone one that's as powerful a force in popular culture as it is today. And so much of that has to do with the changes made on the publishing end this past decade: the introduction of a strong trade paperback program that increased the profits on not just recently-produced material but the entire back catalog; the creative courting of Hollywood talent and subsequent exporting of comic talent into the increasingly lucrative film division; and licensing the shiz-hell out of every possible corner of the Marvel Universe to every possible product on sale nationwide.
All of these areas were impacted heavily by the changes Quesada and Jemas made as leaders at the House of Ideas. Overall, they deserve a lot of credit for making Marvel a household name again, and a brand with coolness around it and selling power. I think Marvel today has bigger caché than at any other time in its history. Crazy.
"Ultimate Spider-Man" Debuts
George Tramountanas: When Marvel first announced their "Ultimate" plans, all I could think about was the John Byrne "Spider-Man: Chapter One" series which came out in 1998-99. That was a retelling of Spider-Man's origin which failed (as far as fans and sales were concerned), and yet here was Marvel, attempting to retell Spider-Man's origin once more. I couldn't understand why Marvel was doing this. It made no sense...until I read it.
As the story started, I thought it was good - a solid beginning with great art. I was surprised that Peter wasn't in his costume in the first few issues, but I didn't mind. I enjoyed learning about him, his friends, and his non-frail aunt. Since then...wow! One of the top books of the decade, and I hope Bendis never tires of writing it.
Tim Callahan: The Ultimate Universe had an auspicious start with an ultra-decompressed origin story for Spider-Man, but it worked. And it continues to work, even as the rest of the Ultimate line seems to be toppling around it.
Dave Richards: When this book started, I was skeptical, but it proved to be fantastic. For the longest time, it was the only Spider-Man book I read. It kept alive my love for the character when I didn't like what was going on with him in the mainstream Marvel Universe. Now - 10 years and over 100 issues later - it's still going strong and, in some ways, getting even better. How many books can still say that?
Steve Sunu: I think part of what makes this book so amazing (or spectacular?) is its consistency. The book started at "decent" and only continues to surpass that baseline. It had the same creative team for most of its run with Bendis and Bagley, and now it's attempting to recreate that initial formula with Bendis and LaFuente. I'm really digging the direction that the series is taking, and can't wait to see where it's going.
Kiel Phegley: Things that Bill Jemas had a direct hand in during his tenure always had a kind of "mad scientist's experiment" feel to them. Tons of those experiments failed (Epic! Tsunami!), but the deliberate pacing and trade-minded model of the Ultimate line was the thing that paid off big. This is especially amazing when one looks at the insane creative marriage of a (basically) no-name crime cartoonist from Cleveland and an artist who was more sick of drawing Spider-Man than of anything else in the whole wide world. The result? Very fun, very accessible comics...
CGC Starts Offering Its Comics Grading Services
George Tramountanas: Prior to CGC, I was curious what qualified a comic as "mint" vs. "near mint." It always seemed to be (and was) a completely subjective grade. Then came CGC, offering a standardized system for grading comics...which should've been a good thing, right? The only problem was, they locked our comics away in plastic (a necessity, I suppose, if you're going to ensure the quality of something). However, the whole service misses the true value of comics - works of art that are meant to be viewed and appreciated. Can you imagine taking the Mona Lisa, locking it away in plastic while only revealing her face, and merely telling folks that the rest of the painting is a masterpiece? I guess CGC fills a need in our industry, but personally, I'm not a fan.
Dave Richards: Comic books were meant to be read, not imprisoned
Tim Callahan: If people want to do this, I guess it doesn't bother me. But it's just a scam, right? Or maybe it's a metaphysical question: what is a comic book if it can't be read?
Shaun Manning: I think there is a benefit to this at the higher echelons of collectordom, but any dude paying premium bucks for a slabbed book published after slabbing was invented needs to have his head examined.
Josh Wigler: I worked in Wizard's warehouse for half a year, so thinking about the topic reminds me of wrapping and shipping out CGC after CGC after CGC. Kinda makes me want to puke harder than Linda Blair. As unbiased as I can get, I think it's like keeping your action figures in packaging - those suckers were meant to be played with and enjoyed, not just looked at. Steve Sunu: While I agree with you guys in principle, I have to admit that I have one CGC'd comic - Terry Moore's "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" Alphona variant. I decided that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It's on my shelf now, staring at me. I guess I can understand the draw, but I don't think I'd ever do it again. There's no law that says you can't buy one action figure to play with and one to save in its packaging. If people want to spend money on stuff like this, far be it for me to deny them the opportunity.
Kiel Phegley: It's the last gasp of the speculator market. I guess it's kind of nice that there are people out there preserving truly old and rare comics as physical objects, while the rest of comics fandom is downloading the stories for free. Sort of. Maybe.
Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" Debuts
George Tramountanas: I've heard this said by others, and I'd have to agree - Morrison's "New X-Men" was the largest change in status quo for the X-Universe since Claremont's run on the title. It was a rebirth for the X-Men that lead to changes with the team that are still felt today. Although I was mixed about his run in places, there's no denying Morrison's impact. As a matter of fact, Joss Whedon has said in interviews that it was Morrison that brought him back to reading the X-Men and set the stage for him writing "Astonishing X-Men." And let us not forget, Morrison gave us one of Marvel's best power couples: Cyclops and the White Queen. How could you not love him for that alone?
Tim Callahan: I've said that Morrison's "New X-Men" is the best X-Men run ever. That was probably a stupid thing to say, as the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne run defined the modern superhero comic, and Morrison's run couldn't possibly have existed without it. Still, Morrison's take on the characters is second best at worst, and "Riot at Xavier's" remains one of the best arcs in any superhero comic published this decade. Plus, Frank Quitely!
Shaun Manning: I re-read this run earlier this year and came to the conclusion Tim is so reluctant to own. Morrison told a story that was both entirely true to the concept of the X-Men and did something entirely new with that idea. Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne may have paved the way, but as with many innovators, they have been surpassed.
Dave Richards: Morrison's run on this book was brilliant simply because of how wildly imaginative it was - Wild Sentinels, a man whose head is a star, Fantomex, and the machinations of Magneto. And the Quitely art was stellar. "New X-Men" got me to re-examine a franchise that I had long written off as stale and trapped in the past.
Tim Callahan: Oh wait, you guys like "New X-Men" as much as I do? Then I must be right!
"Wolverine: Origin" Hits Stands
George Tramountanas: In interviews, Quesada and Jemas said they needed to tell Wolverine's origin before Hollywood got the chance to do it. Once the X-Men movie came out and proved popular, they were correct in assuming that it would happen eventually (and it did, just this year). However, as a book, "Origin" didn't seem to do much for fans. Maybe after theorizing Wolvie's backstory for over twenty-five years, expectations were set too high. The reveal of who Wolverine was – although well-written - came off as an "Eh..." moment for fanboys. But in truth, I'm not sure any story could have met folks' hopes for who Logan is and where he came from. At least we got Daken as a result of this tale...
Tim Callahan: - Did Quesada have anything to do with this? If so, this was a decision that I don't agree with. I can see the appeal of making a ton of money by telling this story, but (a) the story wasn't good at all, and (b) telling the story takes away Wolverine's mysterious past. Bad idea, bad comic.
Shaun Manning: It's surprising to me that Wolverine's popularity has survived after the mystery was revealed. As you're aware, once we know who killed Laura Palmer, the show's over for a lot of people. But "Origin" left a good deal of questions unresolved, even spinning out into the still-running series, "Origins." So I guess as long as there's something Logan doesn't know, or as long as he slices people up with his claws, his fan-base will remain intact.
Dave Richards: Truthfully, this was way too mundane of an origin for me. I imagine I'm going to be in the minority among my colleagues here, but I don't mind revealing Wolverine's past - just make it interesting. He's an extremely long-lived and dangerous guy, so let's see the parts he played in some of the unexplored history of the Marvel U. This is why I'm a fan of Daniel Way's "Wolverine: Origins" series.
Steve Sunu: I thought it was rather underwhelming as a story. Luckily, Daniel Way has been doing a great job extending that mystery - because there's more of a mystery to Wolverine than just his initial origin. What actually grabbed me in "Origin," though, was the art. I was working in a bookstore at the time, and it really got me back into wanting to read comics again.
Kiel Phegley: I'll admit to never having read this. Maybe I read one issue (or a part of one). I do think it's funny that the big reason for "revealing" the origin of Wolverine was so the movie wouldn't do it and screw it up. Then eight years later when the movie came out, it was screwed up for soooooo many other reasons.
George Tramountanas: Sure, Kiel, but if they didn't have "Origin" as the basis for the film, they would've revealed that Logan was actually an alien from Mars who crash-landed on earth and was raised by wolves (okay, that was my pitch to the studio).
George Tramountanas: Who could forget this day? The world changed, and the comic industry (a mostly NY-based institution) was no exception. For some time after this event, it was hard to look at spandex-clad villains threatening to "destroy the world" in quite the same way. Death and destruction in comics suddenly felt less blasé. Heroes unmasked, publishers banded together to put out books to help support relief efforts - things were not the same. And while much in the comic world has gone back to "normal," I'd say the effects of this day still act as a bit of a filter in all that's written and read.
Shaun Manning: The comic community certainly did band together in the aftermath of 9/11. I would argue, though, that the lasting effects to the medium itself may be in the storytelling. There is, understandably, a desire to stay relevant, which introduces recognizable terrorism into comics (never mind, of course, that a lot of super-villainy would fall under the umbrella of "terrorism" anyway). There also now comes a degree of complexity to introducing Muslim characters as either heroes or villains. If there is a Muslim hero, certain fans will cry about a PC liberal agenda or tokenism. And if we have a Muslim villain (usually a terrorist), there is often the perception of profiling – a perception that is not always wrong.
Kiel Phegley: Obviously most of our discussion for the Decade In Review is focusing on the fanboy/Direct Market aspects of the industry, but I think that the September 11th attacks and the response to them provided one of those rare bridges where the often at odds "mainstream" and "alternative" comics communities had a lot more connection to each other than they typically do otherwise. Beyond the specific tribute and fund raising projects that hit in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the creative response from comics was very high across the board.
We had "In the Shadow of No Towers" from Art Spiegelman exploring the shock and trauma of the event from a first hand perspective on one hand and Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon's "The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation" giving a very straight take on the events as they were understood on the other. And on the mainstream end, comics were some of the very first pop media to start grappling with some of the more serious issues associated with the War on Terror rather than just offering up some jingoistic rah rahing.
I'll let critics decide whether any of these projects were truly successful from a creative standpoint, but I think it's pretty undeniable that these kinds of projects put comics on the national stage in a very positive way during a very hard time. In an era where cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad can incite massive waves of violence, it's astonishing how far this medium has been able to go in commenting on life after the biggest tragedy in decades.
Tim Callahan: This changed everything, but how long did those changes last? Things in the comic book world went back to normal pretty quickly, except for a few patriotic heroes fighting terrorists and a few characters crying a bit more. But then again, the country still hasn't recovered – economically or emotionally – from the event, so who's to say what comics might have looked like now without 9/11? We'll never know...
Dave Richards: When 9/11 occurred, the impact was too big for comics to ignore. We saw benefit books and a Captain America book where he started fighting non-costumed terrorists. But I agree with Tim - things gradually seem to have gone back to the way they were before. Perhaps the biggest change you see is more real-world elements making their way into super-villain schemes, like the Red Skull's financial attack on America in Brubaker's Cap run.
"Spider-Man" Is Released In Theaters
George Tramountanas: This was the biggest box office opening ever for a comic book film...at least until "Spider-Man 3" and "Dark Knight" came out. What was hinted at by the "X-Men" movie was made official by this one - folks love comic book movies and they can be big business for studios. Raimi also showed how the latest technology could be used to make a man swing through the city, and he made it clear how that "spandex heroes" could work on the big screen.
Shaun Manning: I remember not entirely loving this movie, but being very glad that it came out because I knew it would lead to more superhero films. And some of those would be better...and some of them really wouldn't.
Tim Callahan: The Green Goblin mask didn't work and the CGI wasn't good enough to pull off the swinging-through-NYC scenes, but Tobey Maguire nailed the characterization of Peter Parker. The movie was endearing, and sweet and cheesy in a good way.
Dave Richards: Sure, there were things that didn't work about this film, but it really did capture the spirit of my favorite comic book character.
Josh Wigler: I love this movie for all of its genuinely good moments and its horrifically stupid ones. The scene with Spidey and Green Goblin on the rooftop - with Gobby's impossibly ajar mouth never moving while delivering one of the most ridiculous monologues ever - makes me laugh every time I watch it, but I don't think that's a bad thing. I definitely dug this one more than Spidey 2, though I know I'm in a minority there.
Steve Sunu: Yes, Josh. Yes, you are.
The First Free Comic Book Day Takes Place
George Tramountanas: What started off as a questionable marketing ploy has become an annual celebration for comic fans. I am still uncertain if FCBD actually brings in new readers to comics or not, but I do know that my little kids (ages 5 and 7) both look forward to this trip to the comic store every year.
Shaun Manning: On that first FCBD, a lot of publishers weren't really sure what to do. And some of them still aren't. But I picked up a free issue of "Hopeless Savages," which introduced me to Oni Press. I remain convinced that, especially for smaller publishers, a full issue of a strong series is more likely to bring in new readers than a sampler. If that full issue is entirely new content, so much the better.
Dave Richards: The initial idea behind this event was spectacular: it was a great way to get new readers into comics. Over the years, though, I think it's become more a day about celebration for long-term fans than it is a day about creating new ones.
Tim Callahan: It is a chance to celebrate comics, and though it may not create many new fans, it could rekindle some interest from some lapsed readers. It could be to comic shops what Black Friday is to every other retailer (albeit on a proportionally smaller scale). Still, my kids were excited to go get some free comics that day, even though we had to drive over an hour to a participating shop. But it was fun! And they read the heck out of those free issues.
Josh Wigler: I think that's the biggest problem about FCBD - it's an awesome event for readers in the know, and a non-event for everyone else. If comic publishers could use their collective noggins to figure out how to get FCBD to the masses, everyone would be better off for it.
Steve Sunu: Brick and mortar stores get really into it, seeing it as a chance to liquidate some of their older stock and reach out to new fans. I remember one shop said you could grab two of the promos and two of the $1 bin books for free. A lot of stores do that these days, and it's really a wonderful way to grab some awesomely obscure back issues.
Kiel Phegley: I don't want to be the grouchy gus here, but each and every year I wonder whether or not Free Comic Book Day actually accomplishes its goal of bringing in new readers or simply excited the core fanbase into sticking with comic shops. Either way, the results are great for retailers (hooray!), but I think that central question of whether the event has been "a success" has yet to be really answered.
"Y: The Last Man" Debuts
George Tramountanas: While Vertigo still had its hits during this period, things were a bit on the quiet side. "Y: The Last Man" came and changed all that. The book was their biggest title since "Sandman" ended, and it made Brian K. Vaughn a creator to watch. I know I've followed all of his writings ever since.
Dave Richards: Another thing that makes this book great is the fact that it's quickly become a way to get new readers into comics. I've given the first collected edition to several non-comic readers, and they quickly became readers because of it.
Tim Callahan: I was the only person I know who read and enjoyed BKV's "Swamp Thing," which had a similar structure of a lone figure hitting the road and encountering strange people along the way. But "Y" took that structure and turned it into a high concept, with plenty of thematic exploration (and cliffhanger thrills) along the way. I don't think "Y" will be much more than a footnote in the "Comics of the 00's" in the long run, but it was fun while it lasted, even if BKV's pop culture references make some of the scenes a bit groan-worthy. But, man, it finished strong!
Shaun Manning: I also read BKV's "Swamp Thing" and enjoyed it. I was still quite young, maybe a teenager, but it presented me with some things I'd never seen before and those scenes still stick with me for that reason. While I've since realized not everything in that series was as earth-shattering as I found it at the time, it's still solid, compelling storytelling and a harbinger of what we'd see in "Y."
Josh Wigler: I'll be talking for far too long if I allow myself to really get into this, but suffice it to say, "Y the Last Man" is one of my favorite things ever and solidified BKV as one of my favorite writers of all time. And yeah, Tim, what an ending.
Steve Sunu: "Y" paved the way for books like Vaughn's "Ex Machina" and even the recent "Daytripper" by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. Tim, I think the series will have more staying power than you give it credit for. Perhaps among those not "in the know" it might fizzle into a footnote, but for comic fans like us, it's going to remain one of the most highly recommended series for years to come.
On that note, we'll close out our look at 2000 - 2002, but don't fret - there's still plenty of years left in the decade! Keep checking back here at CBR over the next few days as our reporters continue their journey across the milestones of the past ten years. And if you feel they've left something out (or dare to disagree with them), be sure to swing by the CBR forums and let them know. They're eager for your approval...