The 2005 CBR Year End Roundup (Part 1 of 2): Trends

Sat, December 31st, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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Throughout 2005, CBR News has brought you all sorts of news regarding the comic book industry. Now, for something different, CBR News has corralled its staff writers (Arune Singh, Dave Richards and George Tramountanas) into discussing their views on the comic book world in 2005. Please take note that none of this is meant as criticism or derision directed towards the industry. All of us at CBR News applaud the efforts made by every single person who contributed to our favorite four-color medium this year, and merely seek to review and discuss trends of the past year.

And now, without further adieu, let's get right into it.

Arune: Hi, and welcome to CBR's Wrap Up Of The Comic Book Year. We'll find a better name eventually.

I'll start off the discussion by beginning with the big topic of the year: crossovers. It seems like they've taken over the business model of the big two companies, and while they're selling well, are they bringing in new fans? Or are they merely cannibalizing the current fan base?

Personally, I've not been enthralled by any of the events this year, which isn't a criticism of the creators or the work, but none of them have struck the emotional notes I'd want from big events. A name creator once told me that if I didn't like "Identity Crisis," I didn't have any right to read superhero comics, so maybe I'm just not the target audience. I loved stuff like "Scott Pilgrim," "Off Road," "Optic Nerve" and "All Star Superman," so some might label me a bit too cool for school. I think I'm better suited to the Dan Slott school of superheroes than the "big event" school.

Thoughts?

Dave: Thanks Arune. I was able to enjoy both Marvel and DC's big events this year because of one thing: variety. The older I get, the less straight-forward superhero stories appeal to me. My favorite books from the big companies these days seem to be the ones that blend superheroes with elements from other genres like science fiction, fantasy, mystery and horror.

I enjoyed many of the various Countdown miniseries. My favorite was probably "The Rann-Thanagar War." Dave Gibbons managed to provide a thrilling space opera. I also enjoyed all of Grant Morrison's first wave of the "Seven Soldiers" series. The various books were a fun blend of different story types and featured some great, down to earth takes on the various characters. The "Manhattan Guardian" stands out as the highlight of this series for me.

"House of M" surprised me. I'm not a fan of Marvel's various X-teams (I'm more drawn to the solo series featuring various X-Characters), but here too, Brian Bendis and company managed to craft an epic, diverse tale.

The main "House of M" miniseries mixed superhero action with science fiction and alternate history, and provided a story with an epic scope and emotional depth. Being a fan of Bendis' writing, I wasn't surprised that he delivered. It's the various tie-ins that I was surprised at how much I enjoyed. I loved "Mutopia X," and with "House of M: Fantastic Four," John Layman gave readers a compelling mirror-image reflection of Marvel's first family. I also enjoyed the "House of M" tie-ins that occurred in the ongoing books. My two favorites were in "Captain America" (with Ed Brubaker's historical reflection on the life of the Sentinel of Liberty in the House of M world) and Reginald Hudlin showing off how cool, slick and smart the King of Wakanda is in "Black Panther" (where T'Challa devised a brilliant scheme to take down the mutant mega-villain Apocalypse).

George: I'm of a split mind when it comes to crossovers. When they're done right, I love them. When they're done wrong, they make me want to hide in the back half of Previews forever. Both Marvel and DC had huge crossovers this year, with both companies doing some things right and other things...not-so-right.

Let's start with DC's big crossover - naturally, I'm talking about "Infinite Crisis." For the most part, this is how major crossovers should be. DC sat down and laid out a map for all of the changes to take place, and, most importantly, they did this early (I believe over a year before the actual event). After this, they began to introduce what the crossover would be about in nearly every DCU book they publish. While I know some creators were less-than-pleased about having storylines forced on them, this did allow readers to see how events were affecting characters on an individual basis. Every single DCU book was emotionally invested in the Crisis, which added to the event's resonance for me. This was also where part of my frustration stemmed from too.

Under the "you just can't win" category, while I loved how everything weaved together, it was frustrating that I felt like I had to buy an extra $15 of books per month to know what was going on. While some may argue that this isn't a necessity, I don't see how anyone reading "Crisis" could fully appreciate it if they didn't read the four miniseries that dovetailed into it. This applied to the regular series as well. For example, if you didn't read "Day of Vengeance," it wouldn't make any sense why Captain Marvel was falling out of the sky in "Gotham Central." And I won't beat a dead horse griping about the "OMAC" miniseries crossover-within-a-crossover. So, yes, I do feel that DC is taking advantage of its loyal fans a bit, and not necessarily bringing in new ones. I'd gripe less if DC's trade program was stronger and I could read all the crossover issues that way (although they did well with the "Crisis" prequel trade and the trades of the miniseries).

Despite my criticisms though, "Crisis" has me on the edge of my seat and has affected me on an emotional level, thanks in particular to the writing of Geoff Johns. The smartest thing DC ever did was to put him in charge of this project and let him have at it. He has me rushing to the comic store every Wednesday.

From the other side of the street, Marvel's big crossover was "House of M." On the plus side, this was one series that really did change the status quo of the Marvel universe. However, where DC's "Crisis" has me caring about the characters' welfare, "House of M" fell a bit flat in this regard (and I'm saying this as a huge Bendis fan). Part of this, I believe, is due to the nature of the miniseries when compared to the distinguished competitor's. Bendis was stuck with the challenge of introducing an army of characters whom fans knew, but who were very different in this changed universe. If you look at issues #2 and 3 of the miniseries, it's all introduction and very little happens. Then, he was forced to move things along quickly to get it to the "No more mutants" moment. Unfortunately, this rush robbed the story of a lot of its emotional impact.

Bendis' strength is in writing characters on a personal level. This event didn't really give him a chance to do that aside from series' first and last issues (the scene of Spider-Man freaking out in the last issue nearly brought me to tears though).

The crossover issues of this event were a mixed bag. To begin with, I found it odd that some series crossed over within the actual series, while others crossed over in their own special mini. This would've felt like a money grab to me, except the crossovers weren't a necessity. This made me glad because then I only had to buy the ones that interested me. Plus, I knew that if I skipped out on a crossover and it ended up being worthwhile, I could always read the trade thanks to Marvel's quick TP turnaround.

In the end, I think the success of both crossovers will be measured by whether or not its effects are lasting, and how the companies capitalize on the changes. Both of these worry me to no end. In "House of M," Magneto, Angel, and Iceman all lost their powers. However, all are characters in the "X-Men 3" movie, so I feel fairly confident that they're going to get their powers back by the movie's release in May 2006 (I think I heard that Iceman actually already did in a recent X-book). The same applies regarding any changes to Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, who all have movies in production or development. Then again, the last time those three had lasting changes was the previous

"Crisis" in the '80s, so maybe that bodes well for DC fans.

Time will tell, at least until the next crossover.

Arune: I guess I'm the minority voice here, in more ways than one, eh? Well, I've never been big on crossovers, so it's always been a mystery to me as to why so many fans salivate over the prospect of a big event.

Creatively, I can see where the opportunities exist for fun stories to come out of all these "events," yet I can't help but think that the way to strengthen the product is to create less redundant products (i.e. streamline the various superhero titles) and focus on higher quality products. I look at the crime procedurals as an example; specifically, the CSI-type shows (which I don't enjoy) and other various shows (all on CBS it seems). These shows rarely crossover and they seem to focus on doing what they do best in each series, depending on the focus. And the real world loves these shows even though the wheel isn't being reinvented, and despite the fact that, frankly, they seem very similar. The same seems to be true for superheroes and their popularity with the public.

People flocked to "Fantastic Four" (which did quite well for itself), so I think one can hardly say the superheroics or nature of these comic books are the issue with attracting a larger audience. I think the problem is that you're walking into comic book stories and seeing masses of titles that are "Part 4 of Infinite Houses of Spandex," and there's no common jumping-on point for new people, especially with such prohibitive prices.

If the series were all easier to enter and streamlined, it'd make everything so much easier for new fans. The Superman books in March are an example: there's an eight part crossover, but with only two series, it's easy for people to follow. That's part of the reason I believe that "Astonishing X-Men" appeals to so many people: you can read about the X-Men in one book, learning all you need to know and not have to worry about other books. That was one of the hallmarks of early nineties X-titles: "Uncanny X-Men," "X-Men," "X-Force" and "X-Factor" all were distinct titles and served their own purposes. You could read any one of them without reading another and get a good experience. I think that may be why the "civilians" I've given comics to have preferred the "Ultimate" and "All Star" books over the regular superhero books.

I'm happy the companies are doing well for themselves, but I wonder how it's affecting the rest of their titles and how much space it's allowing for smaller press books. Sure, it's a competitive business, but imagine if we could give products such as "Optic Nerve" or "Scott Pilgrim" the same attention in stores that you find for superhero books. I mean, it's hard enough in the comics media when you're bombarded with press releases (right or wrong), and it's even more difficult in stores.

Some might say that you could compare comics to television, where we're always introduced to lots of new programs and unknown properties make it big (who would have expected Matthew Fox to headline an acclaimed mystery/drama/sci-fi show?), but I think the economic model of comics make things different. Print runs are limited, the outlets for products are either too general (bookstores) or too intimidating (comic stores), and the price isn't congruent to popular perception of value (television is free, a meal is $5 and comics are $3-4 a pop). I'm not sure I see the benefit in so many crossovers. Give me "Infinite Crisis" without all the miniseries preceding it. Give me "House of M" without all the tangent series. That all said, Marvel's "Annihilation" project looks fun. I'm sure that makes me some kind of hypocrite.

Cover to "Annihilation: Prologue"
George: You make a lot of good points, and I agree - if this keeps up, the market will cannibalize itself. I'm already a bit nervous looking at Marvel's upcoming releases. Between "Annihilation" and "Civil War," something's gotta give. That said, if the crossovers contribute to a more cohesive comic universe, well, that can be fun for readers, too.

I also think we need to distinguish between crossovers and crossover events. A crossover event – like "Infinite Crisis" and "House of M" – can be fun as an occasional occurrence if done well. But when you talk about crossovers between regular series…I'm not sure I see the sense in it. If the purpose is to introduce readers to new characters or books they should be reading, have those characters appear in the book without making it crossover. Either that, or make it a special issue.

For example, I mainly read "New Teen Titans" as a kid. When the New Teen Titans/X-Men crossover occurred, I had never heard of the X-Men before (sad but true). After reading that book, I thought the X-Men characters were intriguing enough to go out and pick up an issue of their series at 7-11 (yes, I'm that old). This led to me getting hooked on the "X," and none of this necessitated a story that began in New Teen Titans and ended in the X-Men (not that that was possible, but you see what I'm saying).

The Bat-books have done numerous required crossovers with "War Games," "Contagion," and other storylines, and it's driven me somewhat nuts. Marvel's decision to run Spider-Man's "The Other" through all the Spidey books kept me from picking up the #1 issue of "Friendly Spider-Man" as well (although I may pick up the trade if the reviews are positive - once again, a strong trade program pays off). If you are telling a single, focused storyline, why split it up between three or four writers and artists? This only hurts the story from my perspective.

So as you can see, I'm a little for and a little against. Eh, what's a publisher to do?

Dave: I agree with many of Arune's points. When it comes to crossovers, I'm skeptical. The crossover is probably the single most abused story type in comic books.

Too often, the yearly crossovers that have been put out by the big companies have been the equivalent of Michael Bay movies. They are flashy and full of large bombastic effects, but ultimately are too long and pointless. Like you said, crossovers can be an opportunity for fun and creative storytelling, but to be a good, worthwhile story a crossover must have a few things:

1) Interesting character interactions: Crossovers are a chance to see what would happen when characters who don't normally meet run into each other. Give the readers a few fun moments with different personalities bumping into each other.

2) An appropriate length: A crossover should not bloated. Don't waste a reader's time. Each chapter should move the story along or provide interesting and valuable insights into the world

3) An epic feel: These heroes are gathered together for a reason. Give readers some genuine suspense. Heroes shine the most when they're facing great adversity.

4) Consequences: These stories should have a huge fallout. They should be universe-altering. Readers should be left with a sense of awe and wonder, and sometimes, even a little fear. They should feel like there was a reason they undertook such an epic journey

Do I think the crossovers this year met these requirements? Yes, for the most part, especially "House of M." Like I mentioned, I also liked that this year's mega-events tried to tell diverse stories. This makes me hopeful for future crossover stories like "Annihilation," "Civil War" and "*52." But I still remain skeptical when any, huge mega-event story is announced.

Arune: So we all agree and disagree at the same time? Ah, fanboys. Crossovers aren't the only big thing this year: it seems as though superhero stories are becoming darker, variant covers are back in style and, continuing a trend from the previous year, TPB's are big business. With the exception of the latter, it seems like we're in the nineties all over again.

Now don't get me wrong-- I liked a lot of the nineties. I loved the "Return Of Superman," the launching of the new "X-Men" series, and the Image explosion. It was exciting for me growing up with that, after being raised on the coolness of the Silver Age. And maybe it's my affinity for the SA that gets me angered: why are so many superheroes such dicks? I read about my favorite characters and they seem emasculated, riddled with silly self-doubt and acting like jerks to each other. Now this seems to be intentional at DC (where it somehow is a lead in to "Infinite Crisis"), but while I don't know where they're going with all this, whatever happened to the true blue heroes? They don't need to be super-vanilla, but they seem so "mundane" and not the kind of people we'd look up to anymore. This approach seems to work for a lot of people (as shown by rising sales), so maybe I'm a stubborn old man…at the age of 24. But I look at something like "New Frontier" and the conflict seems much more nuanced and reasonable than some of the conflicts between heroes these days. I don't mind the conflict in a show like "Justice League Unlimited," but in comics, it's harder for me to swallow, perhaps because it's affecting "continuity" or perhaps I'm just resistant to change.

I have no issues with variant covers and the like: as long as there isn't a limited edition of something essential, I'm not worried. It's like the JLU figures at Target: they're limited edition/exclusive, but easy to get and I can get the ones I like. But then there's the limited edition Hal Jordan figure, that isn't being made available to the public, and that's annoying, because as a simple fan, I want my damn Hal figure!

…ahem.

George: Ah, the nineties. Anyone want to buy a few copies of "Spawn" #1? I'll make you a killer deal...

On the topic of variant covers, I don't mind them too much if the allocation is 50/50 (as is being done with the current "Infinite Crisis"). I just grab the cover I like best (if it's available), buy the book, and read it. In the end, isn't that why we're buying the book - for the material it contains inside?

I do see fans buying one of each of these covers, but seriously, why? If a book warrants an alternate cover, the print run is usually so high that the book isn't going to be worth anything in the long run. Did we learn nothing from the nineties? And if you really want to have both, just wait for the trade and most likely the publisher will reprint both inside.

Now, "incentive" covers are a different matter. I think it's kind of cruel to put out a cover that's not available for fans who really want it. However, I do understand why publishers often do it – to give retailers a comic they can mark up 500% with the publisher boosting orders as the end result.

If fans want these "other" covers to stop, they just have to do what I do - don't buy them. That said, the publishers are seeing sales increases from the alternate covers, so don't expect this trend to stop anytime soon.

As far as characters becoming too introspective, it all comes back to the story for me. I can read an issue of "Invincible" or "Ultimate Spider-Man" without ever feeling the need for a rock 'em-sock 'em battle. As a matter of fact, one of the best comic book issues I've ever read was the "Ultimate Spider-Man" issue where Peter Parker revealed his secret identity to Mary Jane. The two of them never left the bedroom, Peter didn't get into costume, and it didn't matter. As long as it ties into the story - and the character doesn't come off as melodramatic - I'm on board for the ride. It's why Geoff Johns' Titans run works where others have failed.

Regarding comics becoming dark - once again, if it's a well-told story, I'm there! While I'm sick of Batman's brooding as much as the next guy, "Identity Crisis" hit all the right notes. "Wanted" was dark and twisted, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. In the end, too dark, too light, too moody, too bright - it doesn't matter. Entertain my mind and involve my heart and I'm on board for the ride!

Dave: Yeah, lately it does seem like we're blasting back to the past, but I don't really mind.

When I was younger, my favorite heroes were the square-jawed, perfectly straight-laced heroes, and I still love many of these characters (Jay Garrick is the man!). However, lately I've really been drawn to the stories of the characters that have to struggle to be good, because I find them much more interesting. Recently, I realized that Guy Gardener was my favorite Green Lantern because, as someone pointed out to me, he represents the best and worst humanity has to offer. Fabian Nicieza also perfectly illustrates the complexities of being good in books like the highly underrated "New Thunderbolts."

As to the darkening of the DC Universe? I'm actually enjoying it. It's lead to some compelling stories and forced its heroes to make difficult choices with consequences. Do I want the darkness to linger? No. I like these stories because they are different from the usual batch of tales and I'm curious to see where they lead.

I really don't mind alternate covers all that much because they're just that - covers. When I was younger, I used to scramble to get the many variants of books like "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" #1. A few years later, I realized that it's the story inside that matters most to me. I imagine alternate covers would be something that pleases hardcore collectors, but I consider myself more a reader than a collector. So when it comes to alternate covers, I just find the book with the cover that I like the most and is least expensive.

Arune: We're talking about hypotheticals a lot here, but is there really any way to gauge how the market is shifting when we don't have real hard sales figures (such as the Soundscan sales charts for music sales)? How do we know that the last couple of years haven't simply created higher "highs" and lower "lows," resulting in a miniscule increase in sales?

I find it real hard to get "civilians" into comic books and it's been that way for years. Most of them jumped in during the nineties, but didn't stick around after. And even when I hook them up with free swag, they're more interested in Tokyopop's "GTO" or Dark Horse's "Sin City" or the like. They find superhero comics too hard to penetrate and some of the tropes too hard to swallow. It reminds me of the "Hulk" film: most people I know thought it was interesting till Nick Nolte went all super-villain and there was some indecipherable ending. There was no sense of victory since we don't know how Bruce Banner won. But in "Sin City" (the comic and film), even with the stylized violence, there was a greater sense of clarity in the victory and failure of characters.

I guess I look at this and think of how my brother has no interest in "Infinite Crisis" or any Marvel crossover, but likes the "One Year Later" idea and isn't sure why you need a crossover for it. To a degree, I'd concur: couldn't "52" have functioned as that fill-in? We'd look back in time as we're also moving forward. Similarly – and I use my bro as an example because he does like comics – he'd rather read "Street Fighter" or "Invincible," where one title a month is all he needs to buy and stories are self-contained. I can't argue, as "Invincible" is probably my favorite comic on the stands each month, with "All Star Superman" and "She-Hulk" being close seconds. And these are the same books that most "civilians" find interesting. They don't seem to care about Bucky or Jason Todd being alive, though a lot of comics fans love that and rightfully so. But civilians do find it funny to see superheroes practice law, or read about wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am adventures in "New Avengers," even though "House of M" wasn't for them.

Really, I think comic books need to pare down all the stuff being released and focus on their best products. In television, the lack of time slots makes this happen (in theory), but in comics, if there was a "Lost," we'd have a dozen knockoff titles being published, as opposed to the two-to-three on television. I think that when you keep the core series exciting and limited in the amount of other titles necessary to read, it becomes more enticing to everyone. Look at the sales of "Green Lantern: Rebirth" vs. the ongoing series. While I think that "Green Lantern" sells well, there was a palpable excitement about the miniseries because people felt like it was moving forward. I think that Bendis has done so well with "New Avengers" in part due to the "epic" scope of each story. It reminds me of the Claremont "X-Men" actually, where each story made a difference and moved some part of the plot forward in an exciting way.

I'm not trying to slight any creators or their work, but I do think a pared down lineup of superhero comics would be best for the industry. Instead of another Superman series, let's have "The Intimates" back: it's something different and special. That's what we need – to keep showing the world the things that you can only do in comics. Because the medium's special and it's why we all are here at CBR: to celebrate the wonders of the comic book.

Arune: Check back with us on January 1st to read our conclusion, where we list our favorite creators, series and more. And please check out the CBR Community Forum, to let us know what you chose as your favorite trends of the year.

 
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