The CBR Year End Round-Up: Trends, Part One

Thu, December 28th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
CBR News Team, Editor

Hello and welcome to our annual round-up! The staff here at CBR News is excited and overjoyed to review the past year with you. For twelve months a year, we read comics by the long boxful, research stories, and chat with comic book creators. These "round-ups" are the one opportunity our news staff has each year to come together, discuss the trends we've noticed, and share our perceptions of where the industry is headed.

Please take note that none of our comments are meant as overt criticism - we love the comic book industry! Heck, there would be no doubt to this fact if you ever knew what CBR's head honcho paid us for our writing efforts (just kidding, Jonah…don't fire us!).

Taking part in this year's round-up are staff writers Andy Khouri, Dave Richards, Emmett Furey, and George Tramountanas. They've put on their thinking caps, rolled up their sleeves, and are ready for some down and dirty analyses of the industry.

In other words, they're taking those things they chat about at the comic shop every Wednesday and are putting it in writing for you.

So enough of the preamble, and let's get to it!

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George: It's been another interesting year for comics. There were many great things which occurred, but at the same time, I've noticed a few trends which left me a bit concerned about the direction of our industry.

In our round-up last year (Part 1, Part 2), we mentioned how the business seemed to be heading in a direction reminiscent of the '80s, and this seemed to continue in 2006. This could be interpreted as good (higher sales, more readers) and not-so-good (does anyone want to buy a few copies of poly-bagged "X-Force" #1?).

Variant covers have returned in full force, and despite many publishers' insistence that it's dangerous for our industry to travel back down this road, they are here to stay. Companies will keep printing them as long as fans keep buying them. My opinion? Wait for the trade and get all the covers collected (I was ecstatic to have Arthur Suydam's multiple covers in my hardbound "Marvel Zombies").

Another big element of our return to the '80s is the mega-crossover. Both DC and Marvel are happily hunting for the next big "event" they can tie all of their books into, which will naturally give sales a temporary boost. To some extent, this has always been a staple of the two big companies: heroes were either called to fight invading Skrulls/Dominators, or reality was magically altered by the Cosmic Cube/Infinity Gauntlet/Zatanna's fishnet stockings.

However, DC and Marvel have now added a twist to the event comic - it has repercussions. It used to be that the event took place and something possibly happened to a minor league character, but by the end of said event, everything was pretty much back to normal (see "The Joker's Last Laugh" or "Onslaught"). Now, they are using the event to actually create lasting changes within their universes. In other words, these aren't "throwaway" events anymore, and this can be confirmed by the fact that the companies use their A-list talent on these projects.

DC kicked off this notion with "Infinite Crisis." They tied every title in their universe to this event, and it paid off in a big way for them. Sales sky-rocketed leading into the event, and then exploded with all the "One Year Later" stories that followed.

And that's the other new part of the equation I forgot to mention: the event's follow-up. You see, the big two discovered something new in "shaking up" the event formula - they could increase post-sales with changes to their existing series and launching new comics out of the event. Marvel experimented with this idea in 2005's "House of M," but they didn't really perfect the formula until this year's "Civil War."

And how do I feel about this? At first, I was thrilled with it. In last year's round-up, I applauded DC's efforts to create a cohesive universe and make an event comic that was a must-read. I did, however, say all of that came with a caveat: after buying so many books leading into "Infinite Crisis," the payoff had better leave me feeling as though I've gotten my money's worth.

Unfortunately, I didn't feel this way. I'm not going to go into a critique of "Infinite Crisis," because this isn't the place for it. I'm merely mentioning it as a danger this new "event" comic poses. By forcing consumers to buy more comics than usual to fully appreciate the scope of the event taking place, the publisher runs into an even bigger danger of buyer's remorse. This, in turn, will cause them to skip out on the post-event titles and possibly reduce the overall amount of books they purchase.

In addition, the event comic poses another danger to the industry: entropy (of a sort). The argument has been made that event comics don't bring in new readers, but just cannibalize an existing fan base. In addition, once an event comic is successful, the comic book company then looks for an even bigger event the following year, and a bigger one the year after that, and so on. Then, after awhile, comic fans get turned off by the events the big two are putting out and either turn to indy books (possibly and hopefully) or stop reading altogether (more likely).

When Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti joined Marvel to run the Marvel Knights line, Marvel was suffering from this over-editorializing "event" mentality. They got the best writers for their books, and then turned them loose. And while some of that is still going on (see Garth Ennis' MAX "Punisher"), it's becoming more and more rare.

Sheesh, I sound like a doomsayer, which was not my intent. I enjoy a lot of books by DC and Marvel (they constitute close to two-thirds of my weekly purchase), but I hope they tread carefully down this path they are taking. On the plus side, I've been turning more and more to books from other publishers, and discovering quite a few treasures. Some of the gems I've found are in the writings of Rick Remender, Matt Fraction, Brian Wood, Steven Seagle, Simon Oliver, Doug TenNapel, B. Clay Moore and Tom Beland.

Despite some of my previously mentioned concerns, it truly is a good time to be a comic book reader.

Andy: Well, I for one wish it to be known that all my remarks should be taken as criticism, that I do hate the comics industry, and that I hope everyone working in it gets fired. Also, Jonah should pay me more. [Editor's Note: Jonah Weiland here … hrmm, where did Andy's check for January go? I'm sure I sent it. That's so odd. Hrmmmm….]

Nevertheless, I remain wholly addicted to the crack of comics and, as such, I'm forced to observe trends both progressive and regressive, and prescribe cures for any and all ailments I discover, for my hunger must be fed constantly.

As George indicated, the year 2006 for comics is a kind of extended dance remix of 2005. Like all the classic 12" mixes, there are those new rhythms and breakdowns that are just heaven and keep you moving and excited, but there are also the annoying and repetitive samples and overly-looped bits you wish the producer would have left out because the song would have been just as good - if not loads better - without them.

One such track fit for deletion is, of course, the variant cover. The "One Ring" of the comics industry, the variant cover is both a tempting and terrible burden. We saw the destruction wrought by this cheap sales device in the last Comics Age (read: the 1990s), yet they return in greater numbers each month. Like many unpleasant trends, everyone agrees variant covers suck and no one seems to even know anybody who actually buys them, but there they are again, week after week, sitting on comics shelves in plastic bags with $14 price stickers on the front.

To me, it's one thing when something sells out, like an "Infinite Crisis" #2, and the publisher prints up a new version with Jim Lee's uninked pencils as the cover just for fun. I find that acceptable because that variant cover was not built-into the marketability of that particular comic (although in the case of "Infinite Crisis," they each came with two covers, so…oh well). But as the year went on, we were seeing more and more that publishers were planning variants well in advance - especially smaller, more TV/film license-based publishers, who are perhaps the guiltiest of resurrecting this once-forgotten trend.

If that wasn't bad enough, 2006's variants were even cheaper than ever before. Remember the thirteen variant covers for "Gen13" #1 more than ten years ago? Dubious as the concept was, at least they had several different - and amazing - artists creating completely unique covers. A decade later we're seeing variant covers that are merely pencil versions of the original cover, slightly re-colored versions of the original cover, blow-ups of interior panels, or lousy photographs of the live-action version of whatever the comic is licensed from.

As for the return of the mega-crossover, I found myself in favor of them in 2006. While it is supposedly true that crossovers like "Infinite Crisis" and "Civil War" do little to attract new readers but merely galvanize the existing audience, I don't know that this is such a terrible thing. Sales increases may only be temporary, but what isn't temporary is the quality of the work. Unlike crossovers of the past which seemed designed to appear important but ultimately sucked, DC's "Infinite Crisis," for example, (and I know George and I disagree on this) provided me with a truly epic story that was fiercely entertaining, relevant, and left things in a different and much better place than they were before.

The quality of "Infinite Crisis" and "Civil War," crossovers or not, is why I don't see gaining new readers as the only real victory in comics. That you've created a great and memorable story for the people who did read it and did enjoy it is, in my view, an author's most important goal, and I think it's part of a trend we've seen in 2006 at DC Comics and, to some extent, at Marvel - a trend I'm going to characterize as creators bringing their A-Game.

It's as if someone walked into DC one morning and said, "Why aren't we just doing the best possible stuff we could be doing?" The ideas are so simple, yet so big: "Why are the Dodson's working on a Spider-Man book when they're perfect for 'Wonder Woman?'" Boom. The Dodson's are on "Wonder Woman," with a popular mainstream TV writer in tow.

"Grant Morrison loves Superman, but for some reason we aren't letting him do it. Why the hell not? That's stupid." Boom. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely on "All-Star Superman."

"And speaking of Superman, why don't we have comics' biggest names writing our biggest character every month?" Boom. Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns writing the DCU Superman books, with Carlos Pacheco and Adam Kubert on art. "Hell, everyone loves the Richard Donner Superman movie, why not bring in Richard Donner?" Done.

"Brat Meltzer's Justice League story 'Identity Crisis' was one of the best-selling comics and best-reviewed books in years, so why isn't he writing 'Justice League' every month?" Boom!

Grant Morrison on "Batman!" And "The Authority!" And "Wildcats!" With Jim Lee! Duh!

Garth Ennis is the best writer ever for characters beating the hell out of people. "Midnighter!" Of course!

"Paul Dini! Paul %@#ing Dini! Why isn't Paul Dini writing a monthly Batman comic?" DUH! Paul Dini on "Detective." Done.

We've also seen a lot of DC simply listening to their readers and giving them what they want. Fans are always wondering why the Big Two seem to go out of their way to screw things up for no reason. For example, people are always saying they want the Green Lantern Corps back. "Okay, here you go - 'GLC' by Dave Gibbons!" Other trips back to the well have brought us a return of relatively obscure but much lamented titles like "Tales of the Unexpected" by Dave Lapham and Brian Azzarello, "Mystery In Space" by Jim Starlin, and of course, DC's most history/continuity-dependent project yet, "52," which is enjoying a success that I know a few of us at CBR find surprising.

I don't know if these books are piling new readers into comic stores, but they are all perfectly great comic books with hugely talented creators behind them producing excellent work. As a comic reader, that's the best I can ask for. That being said, I would hope that DC and Marvel don't attempt to recreate the success of these "events" artificially in the year to come.

Both "Civil War" and "Infinite Crisis" were critical status-quo-shedding releases, borne from the superhero genre's need to take a long hot bath. But it's just a really bad idea to stay in the tub too long, because you're going to get all wrinkly and disgusting, and before you know it we're in the 1990s all over again, getting cancer from chromium poisoning.

Dave: And I'm batting third for CBR's Year End Round-Up. 2006 was quite a year. Some great stuff and some not-so-great stuff was released. And like my two distinguished colleagues noted, many of the trends of '06 seemed very familiar.

When it comes to variant covers, I don't think they're that harmful, but I just don't understand the appeal of many of them. When I was a kid, I admittedly fell under that spell (raise your hand if you bought all the covers for Todd McFarlane's "Spider-Man" #1). But when you come down to it, it's the same story inside, and isn't that what fans are after? I just don't understand the appeal of paying a lot for a book that I could get for a lot cheaper. When it comes to variant covers, I usually just go with whatever's cheapest, or - if I have a choice - I go with what I like best.

I think variant covers are a minor nuisance, but I whole heartedly agree with Andy - if you're going to do them, at least make an effort. Give us a different image; don't give us the same cover as a pencil sketch.

Now when it comes down to the mega-crossover, I'm all for it as long it plays by some rules: 1) Give us a truly epic story with some high stakes. In other words, all these characters shouldn't have gathered for naught. 2) Give us interactions between characters that we don't normally see. And 3) make the story count. It needs to have impact.

Now did "Infinite Crisis" do that? Yes, it did. Did I care for it? No. It just didn't appeal to me for a number of reasons.

When it came to "One Year Later," I noticed some things. DC seems to be giving new readers "jumping on" points, but it seems like many of their series are moving back towards classic and traditional takes instead of the new directions they seemed to be heading in before "Infinite Crisis." Still, other series emerged that seemed to go in new directions with the types of stories they are laying out. I guess time will tell whether the DC Nation becomes a place of traditional/classic storytelling, a place where new stories and new directions emerge, or a mixture of both.

I suppose it's too early to render a judgment on Marvel's mega-crossover "Civil War," but so far I've really enjoyed it. It seems to play by all my rules, plus "Civil War" seems to be moving the Marvel Universe to a very importance place - new territory. Will it pay off? Again, only time will tell, but color me hopeful.

I also want to talks about a trend that may have emerged last year, but seems to have blown up this year: bringing back old characters. For me, some of the most enjoyable titles this year were "Agents of Atlas," "Moon Knight," "Union Jack," "Blade," all of the "Annihilation" books, "Green Lantern Corps" and "Deathblow." These characters may not be known to the general public, but there are reasons why they've endured and many of them have achieved cult status. The writers of these books took these characters and either boiled them down to their essentials or looked at them in a new light, and many fascinating stories resulted. So I applaud the big two for taking chances on some lesser known, but still very interesting, characters.

The last trend I want to mention began in 2005 and has stuck around this year. Now, it's not a huge trend and some may say it's not big enough, but, yes folks, variety is coming back and I couldn't be happier. A lot of genres were well-represented on the comic racks this year: Horror, Western, Action, Crime, Humor, Science-Fiction, and even some Romance. Sure, the big two predominately still do superhero action, but to their credit, they're trying. Some of the most interesting comics this year from Marvel and DC were the ones that gave you something extra with your superhero action, or gave you something different all together.

Emmett: I'd like to start off my discussion by talking about something that is in no way limited to 2006, but was certainly as rampant as ever - the phenomenon known as "fanboy entitlement." First of all, I am nothing if not a fanboy myself, and don't use the term disparagingly in any way. That being said, fanboy entitlement, in a nutshell, is the idea held by many die-hard comics fans that their tried-and-true heroes must never deviate from those archetypes that were ascribed to them at their inception, and that at the end of any given story arc, their world must return to the status quo.

I agree that crossovers in recent years have had more impact on their respective universes as a whole, and I heartily approve. In fact, I am of the mind that any given creative team's run on any particular book should leave an impact on the world of the characters within it. I am, of course, aware that many of these books have existed for multiple hundreds of issues and many still will exist for multiple hundreds more, and that - to a certain degree - necessitates adherence to some kind of status quo. But fanboy entitlement rears its ugly head in a number of frustrating ways that I'd like to submit for discussion.

  1. Different does not necessarily mean worse.

    Many die-hard fans get into a tizzy when an adaptation of a comic into another medium changes something from the canon of the book. But I've come to believe, as both a fan and a storyteller, that there is a difference between changing something for the sake of being different and changing something because it makes good story sense. For starters, no two creative mediums are alike - they each have their strengths and their weaknesses. Anyone who has ever written a screenplay will tell you that while it may seem blasphemous to comic fans to make the Joker and the man who killed Bruce Wayne's parents one and the same, it makes perfect story sense for a self-contained film. I'm not even necessarily sure I agree with that change, but I at least understand it.

    And the jury is still out on some of the revisionist history in the upcoming "Spider-Man 3," but with Raimi's track record on the franchise thus far, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don't get me wrong - the number of egregious alterations to comics' canon far outnumber the well-conceived ones, but there are those rare occasions when filmmakers actually make an informed decision.

  2. The dead don't stay dead.

    Personally, I think death in comics should be as final as it is in reality, but the truth of the matter is, the comic's "afterlife" has more of a revolving door than Arkham Asylum, so it seems unnecessary to fly off the handle when your favorite character is killed. If the death in question is a good plot point in a good story, I say more power to the author.

  3. To err is human.

    I know there was some debate in last year's wrap-up discussion about the trend towards dark superhero storytelling, with mainstay heroes becoming increasingly morally ambiguous. And I know there are many who believe that superhero stories should be black and white, but I just don't happen to agree with that view. What I'd like to suggest about so-called "out of character" actions is that the human animal is a complex being. Most people do things on a daily basis that are contradictory to the image we have of ourselves and that others have of us. Beyond that, in moments of crisis, human beings make mistakes. "Out of character" actions humanize heroes and make them more accessible to me.

    This doesn't give writers carte blanche to apply new, contradictory character traits to our favorite heroes with reckless abandon, but characters that make mistakes and grow as a result make for a richer tapestry in these superhero universes. This is why I am not so quick to condemn Mark Millar's characterizations in "Civil War." If characters on both sides don't to some degree regret their actions when all is said and done, and don't change and grow as a result, then I'll concede that the story was mishandled.

All right, my fanboy entitlement rant is now over.

One thing I'd like to applaud both Marvel and DC for this year is that crossovers are becoming more organic. Rather than some standalone, massive crossover event that leaves little-to-no impact on the universe, the new crossovers not only leave their mark on the world of the characters, but also seem to flow logically from the previous crossover event.

Last year's crossovers were kind of a disappointment. I enjoyed "House of M," but an alternate universe storyline can only have so much impact. And I was frankly disappointed in "Infinite Crisis" and felt more than my share of buyer's remorse not only for what was, in my opinion, a disappointing ending to the series, but also for shelling out money for many tie-in issues that seemed to tie-in in name only.

But I've been thoroughly enjoying this year's crossover events. While "Civil War" may not be Millar's best work, I have absolutely been enjoying the series, and think it deserves better than it's getting from fans. I think it is generally being handled well by Marvel on a lot of fronts. I'm not reading every tie-in book and don't feel like I have to in order to follow the story (though admittedly some of the characterization seems to have been relegated to the characters' individual titles, so some of the pro- and anti-registration arguments aren't presented as well in the "Civil War" series itself as they are in the tie-ins).

I must say that this is the first time I've seen hero pitted against hero in recent years that doesn't fall back on the time-tested model of starting a fight between two superteams over a misunderstanding. The combatants on either side of this fight legitimately have diametrically opposing opinions. And from everything I've heard, Marvel has, for the most part, given the caretakers of their ongoing books the choice of whether or not to have their book crossover with "Civil War." And in the case of books like "Captain America" and "Iron Man," whose involvement was a forgone conclusion, Marvel allowed the respective writers to finish out their current story arcs first before throwing those characters into the fray.

Another topic that was hotly debated this past year was shipping delays. I do sympathize with fans and retailers both, but I applaud Marvel's commitment to quality over quantity. I'd gladly wait an extra month for a book rather than be subjected to a fill-in artist. In fact, shipping books monthly is at this point largely vestigial and arbitrary. That being said, I do agree that companies that commit to a monthly schedule should be held accountable when they fail to live up to their promise.

Over at DC, I've been generally impressed by "52." Morrison, Waid, Johns and Rucka have managed to take some of the universe's second-string characters and make me genuinely interested in them, which is no small feat (though it's sad that the big three have to be out of the picture for this to happen). The story is also remarkably cohesive considering there are so many hands stirring the pot, though it does seem at times like one hand doesn't know what the other is doing, and that the time-constraints inherent in producing a weekly comic make writing the book a seat-of-the-pants prospect, for better or for worse.

I definitely applaud DC for the recent influx of anthology books, with "52" and the upcoming "Brave and the Bold" chief among those. These kinds of books really allow the writers to play in the sandbox that is the DC universe and to tell a story about a character when they actually have a compelling story to tell, as opposed to telling one at the point of a gun when the monthly deadline looms on an ongoing book. I think we'd get consistently better stories if the industry went in the direction of less ongoing series (which become mired in continuity and soap operatic melodrama) and more mini- and maxi-series.

There's certainly no argument, however, that these crossover events are daunting to new readers, and perhaps they could stand to be fewer and more far between. There's always been a delicate balance between playing to die-hard fans and would-be new readers, but I think there has to be a way to make ongoing comics not only new-reader friendly from arc to arc, but also issue to issue.

I really don't have much to say about variant covers. I'm of a similar mind to Dave - I can't remember feeling compelled to pick one up since the five-cover Claremont/Lee "X-men" #1 spread back in the '90s. But I do agree with Andy that, for the sake of the collectors who have their hearts set on owning every variant, the quality of the covers should be such that collectors feel like they're getting their money's worth.

Four different staff writers with four different opinions. What do you think about the trends of 2006? Come join us in debate here on the CBR Forums. Race you there!

Friday we'll bring you part two of our year end round up. Saturday will see publication of our Best of 2006," while Sunday we'll "Look Forward to 2007." Stick around!

 
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