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

Fri, December 29th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
CBR News Team, Editor

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Continuing their discussion of the trends of 2006, the CBR News staff stands ready with pointed observations, snide remarks, and their best Comic Book Guy impressions. Once again, the staffers joining us for this lively talk are Andy Khouri, Dave Richards, Emmett Furey, and George Tramountanas. Now buckle up and keep your arms inside the vehicle - I have a feeling it's going to be a bumpy ride…

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George: From looking at everything my fellow staff members have said so far, you can see why it's difficult to be a publisher. For every one thing they do that someone loves, another person hates it. There are two sides (at least!) to every problem, which brings me to another trend this year which Emmett brought up: late-shipping comic books.

Granted, late books have been a problem since I began collecting comics in the '80s. This year, however, we've seen the big two publishers make some interesting choices in how they handled this particular problem.

DC has definitely made the decision that late books hurt sales. Therefore, instead of allowing a book to be late, they will grab fill-in artists to pencil issues (or parts of issues) to ensure that books arrive in stores on time. And, while they try to avoid it, they will also use fill-in writers between arcs to give the regular writers a chance to get ahead.

The change of artists within a book was most noticeable within DC's "Infinite Crisis." This was their big event book that they had been building up to for two years within all of their universe's titles. Rather than have any books miss their shipping date (although the final issue was still a tad late), they grabbed a variety of artists to draw various sections of the book (as made most sense by the story), and then they had the main artist (Phil Jimenez) take one or two "shortcuts."

I am sure it was a difficult for DC to go down this path, as opposed to shipping the book late. The company knew that if they shipped this event book late, it would interfere with other parts of the Infinite Crisis story going on in other books that were due to come out. Not only that, but lateness (if bad enough) would ultimately hurt their sales and upset both readers and retailers. In the end, the book came out (relatively) on time, the One Year Later books then followed with big sales, and everyone was happy…sort of.

You see, when it came time to put out the trade paperback for "Infinite Crisis," DC made an interesting decision: they allowed Jimenez to finish up the work that wasn't ready for the monthly books, and they allowed Geoff Johns to go back to wordsmith areas of the book to make more sense post-IC. DC may have looked at this as giving the readers a "thanks" for making the miniseries so successful, but to many, this looked like DC was having their cake and eating it too.

Fans who bought the monthly issues were upset that, in the end, they paid more for monthly issues that were of a lesser quality art-wise and had relevant scripting changes. Some even went as far as to say that DC was trying to "George Lucas" the miniseries in its trade form. Personally, I understand why the decision was made, but I really wanted to see Jimenez draw Batman fighting the Terminator in the monthly issues I purchased.

Looking at the rest of DC's line, there is no doubt the publisher prioritizes shipping dates over consistency in art. This is not a "dig" at the publisher - in fact, fans and retailers should thank DC for keeping their books arriving on time. But - and there's always a "but" - the constant changing of the art hurts the flow of the stories. This is definitely evident when these books go to trade. Many of the current DC universe trades just don't seem very "pretty." So the question then naturally becomes: are they publishing for the monthly audience or for the one at Barnes and Noble?

Being consistent with their ship dates has proven to be beneficial to DC though in terms of sales. IC was a definite touchdown, and the OYL books that followed definitely made it through the uprights for the extra point. And if that's not enough, DC's weekly experiment - "52" - has been a bona fide grand slam (okay, that's enough with the sports analogies).

With "52," DC has conclusively proven that if you have a good, solid story that is delivered in a timely manner, fans will return again and again. The book is consistently in the top 20 of Diamond's monthly sales chart, and since it's weekly, that means DC is filling 4-5 slots at the top of this chart every time it comes out. I also think the $2.50 price point was a smart move and helped contribute to the book's prominence. There's more I could say here, but let's take a gander at Marvel for now.

Marvel is the "bizarro" DC - when forced to choose, they'll pick art over shipping deadlines. Their side of the argument states that the stories their writers are telling justify the kind of art that takes extra time, and that the fans deserve the artists' best work. And even though readers might complain, Marvel believes that when the work is quality, it makes for higher sales in both the monthlies and the trades. Looking at the results they've achieved utilizing this philosophy, it's hard to argue the point. Books with punctuality problems such as "Civil War," "The Ultimates," and "The Astonishing X-Men" constantly blow away other books on Diamond's sales charts.

It should be noted, however, that the aforementioned theory doesn't apply to all late books with beautiful art - a good comic like "Daredevil: Father" was definitely hurt by its shipping problems even though it looked fantastic (I'll get the trade for that one). But despite having deadline problems on a few of their books, Marvel should also get kudos here for having the most consistent and punctual series in terms of great story and art - "Ultimate Spider-Man" by Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley.

Well, we've picked on late artists, but how about late writers? This is something that the comic industry is seeing more and more of nowadays, and it belies another trend - writers who "moonlight" in comics. Increasingly, we are seeing writers who come to comics from other industries - mainly film, television, and novels. For most of these people, comics aren't their primary source of income. It's a "side gig" where they have the opportunity to appease the comic geek that lives within them.

The benefits of having writers like this come to our industry are obvious: the writers bring a strong story-sense and a different point of view; it creates a terrific cross-promotional opportunity by exposing new audiences to comics; and it can be helpful when the trades line the shelves of bookstores. That said, there have been certain frustrations with this trend.

As comics aren't their primary source of income, the comic book gets placed on the "back-burner" for many of these high-profile writers. Fans are expected to understand that the writers have TV episodes or book deadlines pending, while the storyline they were excited about gets placed on an indefinite hold. In addition to taking a book "hostage," these writers can often tie up some of the industry's best artists. Leinil Yu was held up on "Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk" until Marvel wisely moved him to the Avengers, and poor Terry Dodson seemed stuck on "Wonder Woman" this year. Considering this is Dodson's second experience like this (the first being Kevin Smith's "Spider-Man/Black Cat"), he may think twice before accepting another gig with an outsider to the industry.

Once again, I do understand the benefits of utilizing these writers, and every so often, magic happens and we end up with a Brad Meltzer, Greg Rucka, or Jeph Loeb. And I couldn't be happier than when this happens. Speaking of Loeb, these comic "outsiders" should look to him in terms of what they should aspire to. The man helps run the hottest new TV show this season - "Heroes" - and he still manages to get several titles on the stands each month. Every publisher should be so lucky as to have a Loeb working for them.

Looking at all the trends I've mentioned - as well as those my co-writers have discussed - it seems publishers are often caught between a rock and a hard place. They are trying to please readers and retailers, while keeping their bottom line in mind. Publishers, I believe all readers can promise you this: make the stories compelling, the characters multi-faceted, and the art a treat for the eyes, and we will buy your book.

Andy: I find the fact that we're even talking about late books to be a symptom of Emmet's concept of Fan Entitlement. Certainly, the scenarios George outlined are unfortunate and annoying, but I still can't think of any other entertainment industry model in which fans get as irate about something not arriving on time as in the comics industry.

But then, do we even know what percentage of readers really care that much? A majority? A very vocal minority? On the John Byrne Forum, for example, Byrne and his members have frequently compared the act of buying a late book to being willfully defecated upon. The assumption is, apparently, that soliciting a comic and shipping it late is the same thing as breaking a contract with readers and therefore showing them disrespect, and even contempt. And not just readers, but disdain for the industry itself.

I suppose in some cases this may be true - that some creators aren't very committed to honoring their deadlines and couldn't care less if readers feel slighted. I tend to suspect though, based on my experience and conversations with comics creators, that those who ship late books generally feel lousy about it, and that the reasons for the delays are usually rooted in poor time management, personal emergencies like births or deaths, illness, or just not being able to write or draw as fast as they thought they could. I guess some people feel that a professional comic creator ought to have their work done so far in advance, or at least have some sort of contingency plan should one of those obstacles come up, that there's no real excuse for shipping a book late.

In my view, that's crap. In every profession in modern civilization, deadlines are at some juncture imposed and deadlines are at some juncture missed. If a data analyst wakes up one morning with the flu and can't go to the office and finish whatever he's meant to have finished that day, and it screws someone else up down the line…oh well, people get sick. It happens. Does it mean he's an unprofessional data analyst?

If a cast member of "Lost" misses her plane because of a traffic accident on the way to the airport - even if she left two hours early - and can't make it to the set and everyone else's schedule gets shifted to accommodate her and the episode airs a week late, is that cast member unprofessional?

If the clock rolls around 4am at Steve McNiven's house and despite all his plans, the last page of "Civil War" #6 just isn't working and he'd rather go to bed and try again tomorrow even though he's going to miss the deadline - does that make him unprofessional? Should he turn in a page he knows isn't 100% just to ship it on time? For a book with his name on it that's going to stay in print virtually forever?

No, it doesn't make him unprofessional, not to me. Not when the choice is "respect" the fans by making the deadline or "respect" your fans by putting out work you believe in. But even if Steve McNiven is playing Nintendo and giggling "bwa-ha-ha, screw those bitchy fanboys," I honestly have other things to do with my time than lose sleep over how jerked around I feel by Steve McNiven and Marvel comics. Late books are annoying but there are plenty of other comics to read, movies to see, shows to watch, foods to eat, places to go and people to see. I mean, Christ, if "Lost" is a rerun, you watch something else, you know? Do we live our lives based on the passing of Wednesdays?

And speaking of how there are plenty of other comics to read, I think it's time we put the focus on the "other" mainstream for a minute - that chunk of the world who doesn't know what "Wednesday" means.

2006 has reminded me a lot of 2000-2002. Back then, it seemed like comics were finally returning to a truly multi-genre medium where variety was encouraged and embraced by all kinds of readers as well as the mainstream press. The old Warren Ellis Forum had a lot to do with it then, contributing to the success of titles like "Jimmy Corrigan," "Whiteout," "Blankets," "Eagle," "Sleeper," and other numerous titles coming out of Oni, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics and AiT/PlanetLar.

Then for the next few years, many of those creators wrote superhero comics for Marvel and DC….

In 2006, I think we saw the return of what I'm calling "indie chic." The most obvious example is the revitalization of Image Comics. It's been happening slowly for awhile, but Image has really transformed itself into the premiere publisher for independent and creator-owned comics of all sorts, and readers have caught on. "The Walking Dead," a black and white comic, is routinely selling out of already large print-runs. "Phonogram," another black and white from a pair of creators whom nobody's ever heard of is getting rave reviews all over the net as well as in places like Spin magazine. Matt Fraction's "Casanova" is getting up-front placement at many of the country's most influential retailers.

Oni's throwin' in too, with books like "Wasteland" and Brian Wood's "Local," both receiving the kind of buzz and acclaim that we saw indies enjoy in the first part of the decade. Vertigo continues their spectacular performance in this category, especially with Brian Wood's "DMZ" and Brian K. Vaughan's "Pride Of Baghdad."

In a time where the big publishers as well as the founding Image studios are scrambling to get some press for their full-color extravaganza comics, these indie creators are eating up much of the media's promotional real estate. I was stunned to discover this year that there are some readers as well as creators who'll have nothing to do with Image because they've still got a hate-on for the crimes of Image past, such as the chromium business we discussed earlier. In a time where variety has cycled back into popularity, people like that have become not just a part of the problem, but indeed the problem.

That you apparently have to be a kind of activist in order to be a comics fan is, in my view, profoundly unfortunate, but it's the way it is. And with so much happening right now, I'm feeling like the industry is really trying to grow, not just save itself. Besides the generally great output by veterans and indies in 2006, we also saw the big publishers get serious about reaching out to a broader audience. This is evident in a number of ways, including, most interestingly, in the sort of licensed comics we've seen in 2006. Much has been said about the "nostalgia" hard-on comics experienced a few years ago with the resurrection of "Transformers," "G.I. Joe," and other such Saturday morning favorites, but what 2006 brought the industry were comics licensed from far more diverse and contemporary sources.

Marvel Comics partnered with Dabel Brothers Productions because of the value they saw in Dabel's holdings, which include the comic licenses for novels by contemporary authors like Orson Scott Card, George R.R. Martin, R.A. Salvatore and many more. Marvel's also licensed "The Dark Tower" from Stephen King. Before the film version was brought back to life, Vertigo made a deal to publish a graphic novel based on the then-unmade screenplay for Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain." Some smaller publishers seem to produce almost exclusively licensed material - Devil's Due and Dynamite being the most notable, with titles including "Army Of Darkness," "Family Guy," "The Lone Ranger," "Highlander," "Red Sonja," "Xena," and "Battlestar Galactica."

To further the search for that elusive mainstream audience, publishers have recruited mainstream authors not only for licenses, but also as work-for-hire employees. The most obvious example is New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer, whose DC work is celebrated widely and, incidentally, whose name was conspicuously larger than his comic's title on the "Identity Crisis" hardcover collection. Other examples include the previously-mentioned Paul Dini (a writer on "Batman: The Animated Series") who now writes Batman comics; TV writer Marc Guggenheim, who is writing for both DC ("The Flash") and Marvel ("Wolverine"); and Allan Heinberg (from "The OC" and "Grey's Anatomy") who is busy on "Wonder Woman." Top Cow produced Seth Green and Hugh Sterbakov's comic outing - "The Freshmen." Wildstorm is producing a comic by actor Adam Brody ("The OC"). Dynamite has "Lost" writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach on a "Galactica" comic. The list goes on and on.

Jeph Loeb and Brian K. Vaughan are doing double-duty as TV writers and comic creators, and I hope that others follow suit. The more new blood the better, and it works both ways - I'm sure you've noticed the significant improvements certain TV shows have enjoyed when Jeph Loeb's involved, as well as the considerable drop in quality that occurs when he leaves. And no, I'm not talking about "Smallville" (that show always had problems, in my opinion). But perhaps this writer-exchange program will emerge as a trend in 2007? Let's hope so.

Dave: My feelings on "lateness" pretty much echo Andy's. I imagine there are few people out there that need to turn off their Xbox or stop downloading porn but most creators are hard-working and do their best to get their books out on time. Sometimes, a certain four letter word that rhymes with "spit" happens, but you've just got to roll with it. Comics are a monthly serial medium and it's the nature of the beast that occasionally the trains won't run on time.

Does a book's lateness hurt my enjoyment of it? Sometimes. If a story is overly complicated and it's been a really long time, I might find it hard to remember what's going on. But if a late book comes with a decent recap page or is written in a way that refreshes your memory quickly, I can still have a great time reading a chronically late title.

When it comes to altered graphic novels/director's cuts like "Infinite Crisis," I'm of two minds. It's kind of cool to see how the creators wanted their story to look, but it also kind of penalizes the fans that shelled out their hard earned bucks for the individual issues. The "waiting for the trade" phenomenon can hurt some books. Just imagine what it would do if the "director's cut"-style trades catch on? Everybody would be waiting to make sure they got the whole story.

Fortunately, I think there's an easy solution. If companies are going to continue to change stories when they get collected and "fix" them, they should give readers who already bought the original comics access to the new pages. They could post them on the web and make them available for download. This way, someone who's already bought the individual issues doesn't have to buy the graphic novel to get the whole story.

George: I wasn't going to jump in again, but I feel that my point about lateness is being taken out of context to a degree (gee, that never happens on the internet).

With regards to Andy's point about writers/artists needing running into delays because of personal issues - I understand that. And, as a matter of fact, I don't believe that Bryan Hitch, Steve McNiven, or John Cassaday are wasting time playing video games (or whatever). I have faith that they are working their buns off trying to get fans the best art they can muster as quickly as they can. I'm just saying there should be some accountability, from both the writers/artists and the publishers.

Andy boiled it down to "fan entitlement," but I think that oversimplifies the issue. In any case, that's not my main problem with lateness, because readers are not the ones that are hurt the most. The people most grievously injured by lateness are the retailers.

The retailers are hurt in two ways: 1) the product they need to sell for their livelihood isn't available when they were counting on it, and 2) there is decreased desire for late product, so they end up with books they can't sell. Once again, let's look at Kevin Smith's "Spider-Man/Black Cat" book. It sold huge numbers when it first came out, but by the time the last few issues came rolling around, it didn't sell anywhere near the numbers it should have considering it was a "Kevin Smith Book." When issues come out severely late, people figure that they'll just grab the trade, and half the time they do this from Amazon.com or some other online retailer where they can get the book at nearly half the cover price. Lateness kills our retailers, who we need if we are to have a monthly comic book industry.

Image Comics was the number one publisher in the industry when it started out. While variant covers and weak storylines definitely played a part in its decline, lateness was what hurt it the most in my opinion. Can you imagine where the company would've been today if it managed to ship all of its books on time?

And in the latest trade paperback of "Invincible" (Vol. 7 - "Three's Company"), Image's Executive Director Eric Stephenson talks about the phenomenon of the book and the Invincible character. He mentions that the gap in shipping between issues #5 and #6 (due to a change in artists), and how lateness almost killed what is now one of the best books on the stands. I, for one, am grateful that the book got back onto a regular schedule and is still around for all of its fans.

The word "professionalism" also crept into the discussion, and I think it's an important word to consider. If we want our industry to be taken seriously, then we need to act like professionals. What would happen if Newsweek or Time missed a ship date? Someone would be fired. What if the crew for "Heroes" didn't have their episode ready in time for sweeps? There would be several people looking for new jobs.

And I may be stretching things a bit far by saying this next part, but I'll take a chance: DC and Marvel are both publicly-traded companies (although DC's value is merely reflected as an asset of Warner Bros.). Therefore, don't the employees of these companies have an obligation to the stockholders as well? Anything that hurts the bottom line ultimately hurts those who own shares…okay, maybe I've stretched too far.

Once again, I don't necessarily blame the artists, but I think better communication between the publisher and artist needs to take place before a book is commissioned. What do you think would happen if a publisher told a perpetually-late artist that they would lose a percentage of their trade royalties if they didn't meet their deadlines? I think it would at least open a discussion where the artist might say, "If that's the case, I need more time for this project." As it stands, there are no penalties for late books. The only people penalized are the retailers and fans.

And as for the comic book writers who "moonlight" from other industries, maybe the completed scripts need to be collected before the art is commissioned? Or maybe these writers only do graphic novels until they know they can meet a monthly grind? I do know it's possible for some writers to meet two sets of deadlines when needed. As mentioned, Jeph Loeb and Greg Rucka both do it. And while Bryan K. Vaughan ("Y The Last Man," "Runaways") just joined the writing staff for "Lost," I still get the feeling that we'll be seeing his books in stores on a regular schedule. At least, I really hope so…

And that's the end of my rant. Back to your regularly-scheduled year end round-up and the fanboy entitlement trend...

Emmett: Fanboy entitlement aside, the fact that comic fans are so passionate about the industry and so vocal about it is part of what makes comics great. I know I've always liked vicariously "re-enjoying" my favorite comics through the eyes of new readers by lending out my trades, which also speaks to the comics activism that Andy mentioned. The fanboy is not entirely without merit, this penchant for staunch activism is just one of the things that validates our outspoken nature and has resulted in more than a few fan-favorite titles being saved from the chopping block, "Spider-Girl" and "Manhunter" chief among those.

Andy also mentioned the indie movement which has been steadily growing in the past year, and I couldn't be happier about this. In an old interview, Warren Ellis noted that America is the only place where would-be comic creators primarily aspire to write and draw existing characters rather than create their own original work. This is obviously a byproduct of Marvel and DC's stranglehold on the market and the superhero inundation that persists to this day. But I think we've all seen many of our favorite writers producing a healthy mix of mainstream work and indie fare in the past year, which has certainly raised the profile of some of the smaller-press publishers and been a boon to the industry.

The late-shipping issue is a byproduct of the monthly publication schedule. In a comics landscape where trade sales are doing for monthlies what DVD sales do for theatrical releases (and much of the profit is stemming from ancillary markets), it will be interesting to see in the coming years if the monthly comic goes the way of the dinosaur. I'm certainly not advocating this, mind you. There are many stories that benefit from being released monthly as opposed to a series of longer-form OGN's - books where the journey is as important as the destination, like "Y The Last Man" or "Transmetropolitan." Hopefully trades will continue to supplement the monthly sales and, as Dave said, offer "special features" akin to DVD releases for the fans who want to dig deeper into their favorite titles.

I am definitely in favor of the recent trend of television writers trying their hand at comics and vice-versa, though it would be nice if TV writers who dabbled in comics made adhering to the aforementioned monthly deadline more of a priority. But TV and comics obviously have a lot in common - both employ visual storytelling and both tell episodic stories, so I think the intermingling of TV and comic professionals is a natural and exciting development. Like all good comics activists, I hope that these established TV writers bring new readers to comics, as books like Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-men" have no doubt already been doing.

As you can see, our four staffers went through a bit of a battle with one another to bring you this article. Therefore, we'll leave you with a quote that possibly best summarizes this year in comics: Whose side are you on?

Come join us in debate at the CBR Forums. Bring your insightful criticisms and rhetorical remarks, and we'll see you there!

Come back Saturday for what the guys think are the best comics of 2006.

 
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