Comic Fodder

Closing Out the Decade in Comics

Time's Techland site (a site I find myself enjoying more and more) recently posted a "Top 10 of the Decade". Its an interesting assessment, and its likely that if you tilt toward the Big 2, you're going to find something to agree with, and more a few items to make you raise an eyebrow or two.

Its a challenge to dig back through ten years of hundreds of comics per month and my hat is off to anyone who tries to put together a list of a dozen or so comics that are "best of". I thought long and hard about what might be on my list, and between wanting to name series that crossed over from the late-90's, comics that I know worked for me but weren't technically pushing any boundaries (Geoff Johns' run on "Green Lantern"), the snarky and hollow derision of the "comix" fans if you don't toss in their favorite comics, and the nagging feeling that if I woke up on a different side of the bed tomorrow, I'd likely have a completely different list... this writer decided that there were simply too many limiting factors in citing a "Top Ten of the Decade".

Best of the Decade?

Mike Williams, the author of the Techland article, selected Marvel's "Ultimates" as his choice of the #1 comic of the decade. I don't necessarily agree, and doubt it would find its way into my own Top Ten (but certainly somewhere in a list of most important comics of the decade). The 'Oughts saw DC struggling with the shakeout of the Chromium 90's in a different manner than their Marvelous competition. When DC brought the Wildstorm universe into their fold, it gave a layer of visibility to team books like The Authority that those series may not have previously enjoyed. To this reader, while Ultimates offered stunning art and a take on the Avengers concept (which I confess I never really "got", even from when I was a kid buying comics at "Foodland") which seemed like an updating of the idea with character in mind, with an adult's cynicism and appreciation of the military-industrial complex that would support Marvel's Mightiest Heroes.

Unfortunately, I find it hard to argue that after the first volume of Ultimates the series had much to offer, and, narratively, didn't bring much to the table that Ellis and Millar hadn't already done with Authority.

Nonetheless, the series is worth noting because of all the areas of transition, experimentation, etc... that I suspect we may consider very "'Oughts" come 2013. The past decade certainly saw Marvel and DC attempting to find new ways to expand their limited base of fans with rejuvenated takes on their standard-issue characters (be it the Ultimate efforts, the never-materialized "Baby Marvels", or the now-launched "Superhero Squadron"). Ultimates also managed to capture no small amount of the "what if" scenarios regarding "superheroes" that the 80's had hinted at, the 90's had attempted and mostly failed, and which the 00's saw as a matter of course. Superhero teams were now a "might makes right" expression of the era, complete with government paychecks and the abandonment of secret identity in favor of seeing power less as a responsibility, and something more to be wielded in a "the best defense is a good offense" model, which only Authority ever really took to its logical conclusion.

DC's Ten Years of Editorial Mandates

DC spent the 00's struggling with how to manage the 70 prior years of continuity, re-establishing key characters (most often characters who were no longer quite as dead as DC had previously suggested), and basically trying to get a house in order via events. In many ways, at DC, Geoff Johns' redefining work on Hawkman led to a management style for the entire rest of the DC Universe. If Hawkman's badly managed history could be put in order, so, too, could the mess left by a shrugging approach to continuity and editorial oversight. Whether it was the awesome/ ridiculous idea that Superboy Prime's punches were responsible for the continuity errors in the DCU, or that, as we learned in the most recent issue of Blackest Night, that the deaths and resurrections of our heroes were secretly being manipulated by this Nekron fellow... the DCU has finally found editorial order.

That's not to say we didn't have some painful, bumpy moments along the way (see: Countdown, Trinity, Reign in Hell, OMAC, etc...). And while Didio's mistakes are often very public (long delays, etc...), its clear the man is learning on the job. We've seen the end of the six-issue writing assignment for well-managed titles, and an approach to long-form storytelling that, while imperfect, at least respects the readers far more than the mess that dominated the pre-Infinite Crisis DCU.

The Decade When Comics Brought Boffo Box Office

Younger readers will be surprised to learn that there was a time called "before X-Men and Spider-Man came out" when Hollywood's first instinct when it came to superhero movies was to go wacky. This writer actually remembers reading an interview with Michael Keaton where Tim Burton had to explain to him several days into shooting the 1980's Batman film that Batman really shouldn't do a little dance after punching out a villain. We also wound up with defunct concepts like the now almost mythic "Legends of the Super-Heroes" shows on network television, the defunct Justice League pilot, etc... All of which comic fans would line up to see, just so we could catch our favorite characters in TV or in a movie.

I'll remember the 00's as the decade when producers and directors quit telling interviewers that they still hadn't ever read the comic, even as the film was being released (you know, because comics are for children and simpletons).

Not every movie was a homerun (ie: Daredevil), and some were simply bad film making (ie: Catwoman). And some somehow took a great comic and sucked the life out of it (ie: Watchmen). Others celebrated the medium and creators (Ghost World, American Splendor). And others surprised me for how they captured what we'd known about those characters all along, and told the story in a way that used the best of a medium and decades of character (Iron Man, Dark Knight). And some even managed to have a graps that exceeded their reach (Superman Returns).

Add in 9 seasons of Smallville, high profile Spidey cartoons, Justice League, a stream of direct-to-video movies from DC, Marvel and a few indie companies, an in-the-works Spidey Broadway musical... In short: The 00's were the decade when the public began to see Superheroes as a viable entertainment option without the stigma and silliness that had been associated with mystery men and super heroes.

I still can't believe how many people know what the heck an "X-Man" is. Simply unthinkable when I was a kid.

Never Ending Battle for Expansion

It doesn't take much arm twisting for me to say that "All Star Superman" was one of my favorite comics of the decade, it received terrific sales and critical reviews. It also didn't do much better than the average best seller from Diamond, nor expand the reach or audience of comics. Nor did the explosion of sales of Watchmen seem to mainline new readers into comic shops, despite a very well-intentioned "After Watchmen" marketing effort. Perhaps that is why DC seems ready to quit beating the same drums when it comes to their primary characters, and has looked to models which are working for other comics in the non-Direct Market approach to reaching a new audience. Earth One may not be the magic bullet, but its far more likely to find that audience if the distribution hits the same shelves as Diary of a Wimpy, Naruto, Bone and other comics that kids pick up.

Superhero comics closed the decade about $1.00 more per issue than when the decade started (or $2.00 with ten more pages of content for comics like "Action Comics"). Single issues are now almost exclusively sold in the Direct Market and the occasional magazine rack at a book store.

Heading into the next decade, it seems that DC, at least, is happy to allow the culture around comics to continue on in the manner in which they've existed for the last ten or more, but may be looking at the monthly format as a user-sponsored R&D lab for larger projects intended for a general audience. And those larger projects could well be a form of the comics themselves (and not just merchandising and licensing).

Cause for Concern?

At the end of this decade, looking back, I am concerned that the stories around the publishers have become as important as, and often more interesting than the comics themselves. The 90's produced nothing as earth-shattering as "Watchmen" or "Dark Knight" (although you could argue that certain series such as "Kingdom Come" saw a ripple effect). The 00's saw a splintering of the comic audience and a deluge of material that makes the black and white explosion of the 80's seem small by comparison as genres were exploited and hundreds of new comics and companies hit the shelf (not to mention web comics).

My least favorite trend of the decade was the dissolution of the friendly competition between DC and Marvel into what appears to be a one-sided antagonistic relationship fostered first by Bill Jemas and Joe "The Classy One" Quesada, which has picked up the frothing, pointless fury of the internet and made what company you tend to read as divisive as politics, complete with the same endless, ill-informed rants in comment sections.

And just as comics tended to reflect the culture of the decade, it seemed fitting that DC wound up the year watching themselves reshuffled within a massive corporation (with their publisher losing his job) and Marvel being purchased by a massive communications company itself (which, for those of us who recall the "AOL Comics" days, seemed hilarious).

DC has been corporate-owned for decades, and Marvel has been owned before by various interests (including poor, doomed, New World Pictures). Its a change for both to be owned as parts of two towering monopolies, but in many ways, it may also be good for both to take advantage of corporate synergy and have bosses that push them to move beyond a market serving a fraction of 1% of the population.

And then the internet happened...

Like the rest of print media, comics have been entirely too slow to adjust to the changing landscape and habits of their potential consumers. Its impossible to know if the audience would have learned the habit of downloading comics at some price from company websites had DC or Marvel ever put forth an adequate electronic platform. But it is clear that a large portion of that audience found illegal outlets for accessing material, and were able to justify it in part due to lack of availability.

We'll have to see what happens with Marvel and DC's electronic efforts as new blood brings new ideas.

The decade also brought about news sites, comic blogging, etc... As I'm currently guest-blogging in such a glass house, I'll pick my stones carefully. The industry has found a source for instant feedback, and one suspects that somebody is lurking on the internet to see what fans are saying when they aren't choosing relentless negativity as their point of view. But no single blogger holds sway, and the "news sites" have been largely co-opted into regurgitating press releases at this date, if any real news was being had at all.

However, fans have found a way to talk amongst themselves, to engage one another, share opinions, tidbits, etc... and what had been a hobby of what I'd guess was somewhat limited social interaction has taken on a life of its own as one has an endless supply of sites to follow.

In conclusion

To wrap things up, I'd like to solicit some of YOUR Top Ten of the 00's lists! Please post them below! Maybe it'll get my brain firing and I can get a list up of my own.

Honestly, I really hope Travis gets a list up. I'd love to see it.

From comics reflecting culture, to comics wrestling with advances in technology, to changes in leadership and corporate structure, the past ten years have been much more than the decade of particular trends. Comics had learned important lessons about their role as a niche consumer product from the Holo-Foil exploits of the 1990's, and it did truly seem that both Marvel and DC learned important lessons about how to focus upon story and content. It was the decade when superheroes hit the mainstream in a new and unmistakable way, and we saw the geeks truly were inheriting the Earth.

This reader is looking forward to seeing what the next ten years hold.



Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com