Inside John Byrne’s studio

For those of us of a certain age the name John Byrne is associated with the X Men.

As well as his Superman reboot.

Over the last decade or so Byrne’s been doing bits and bobs away from Marvel or DC, though there is a rumour he’s working on an X Men book again. Byrne has a pretty Marmite reputation with fans but this is someone who helped change modern superhero comics, and really probably deserves more credit than he gets.

The video below is a fascinating tour round his studio and his collection of original art. It should make you supremely jealous. Enjoy.

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DC Comics are no longer being distributed in British newsagents

Titan Comics are no longer publishing their licensed reprints of DC Comics in the UK meaning there won’t be DC titles in newsagents which means a lot of readers will be disappointed.

Comics in newsagents is important because for many people it’ll be their first encounter with them, and indeed people like Warren Ellis has spoken of stumbling across comics in newsagents when he was young. So that spark led into careers in the industry for a lot of people but for the last 20 years or so DC have royally fucked up ensuring readers get their favourite stories, or even pick up new ones. Licences have been passed around but we shouldn’t have a situation where on the verge of 2019 the license is dangling there waiting for someone else to pick it up.

But as said, it never used to be like that. DC used to have their comics well distributed from the 1950’s when 5/6% of the average titles print run was sent to the UK to be shipped to newsagents. By the 80s and early 90’s large chunks of certain titles print runs (Hellblazer for example)  were escaping cancellation as much of the print run was being sold in the UK, and not just the direct market. You could pick up titles in not just the big chains like W.H Smith’s but your corner shop with your loaf and pint of milk. All of that stopped in the late 90s.

Next time out I’ll be going into this more as I start a series of stories of unsung heroes of British comics.

What I thought of Elsewords

The CW’s DC selection of DC series are often a bit dull and tedious (part of the problem with having 20-odd episodes a year) but on the whole, Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and now, Black Lightning, are pretty fun and the now annual crossover has been great.

This year sees the crossover scale back a bit from last year’s in terms of characters as it focuses mainly on Flash and Green Arrow, with Supergirl providing support with her cousin Superman. The scale though, is cosmic as the producers decide to up the stakes, not to mention trust the audience that it grasps concepts like alternate worlds and books that can rewrite reality which is what’s going on here as Oliver Queen and Barry Allen change places so Queen is the Flash and Allen is the Green Arrow. This is because a cosmic being called The Monitor has given a Dr. John Dee the Book of Destiny in order to rewrite reality so he can test heroes for a ‘crisis’ that’s coming.

Got it?

Truth is that if you’ve not been watching the programmes over the years you’ll be lost, and if you’ve no idea of DC Comics and its history you’ll be even more lost. For those of us familiar with both, Elsewords is playful fun, even if it also acts (sometimes tediously) as soft pilot episodes for Superman and Batwoman getting their own shows.but the entire story serves as prologue for the Arrowverse doing their own version of Crisis on Infinite Earths next autumn.

Crisis is generally considered to be not only the best of superhero comics vast crossovers (mainly as it had an actual purpose and not just to make money) but it gave DC the chance to clean house, which it didn’t quite do as DC have spent the decades since trying to tidy up after Crisis, but here the tease is for all (or the ones they can afford/get) of DC’s television and film adaptations. We’ve already seen the return of the 1990 version of The Flash, so what’s to stop anyone else turning up next year barring money and death?

Overall Elsewords is fun, and done by people who clearly don’t just like the characters but the comics too. If only the people making DC’s films did the same.

Purging the stereotype of 1990’s comics

I watched this video about Marvel’s pretty dismal reboot of some of their titles back in the 90’s, and on the whole its fine but uses the lazy stereotype of 90’s comics being all bulging Liefeldesque characters and really, not very good.

It seems to be the view of Millennial commentators that the 90’s were crap but the truth is the 90’s were probably the decade where one could still be surprised by what the mainstream would do with even Marvel producing quality work at the end of a decade where the majority of their output was instantly forgettable

Say the 90’s to a certain age and type of fan and they’ll think of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Spawn, Jim Lee’s X Men or Image work, but many will think instantly of this piece by Rob Liefeld .

There’s nothing defensible about that piece. In every way it is awful It represents a small part of 90’s comics. It doesn’t represent say, Preacher, Sandman, The Invisibles, Grendel, Love and Rockets, Sin City, Concrete, Nexus, Yummy Fur, From Hell, Bone and Hate plus many, many other titles showed a real diversity when one walked into a comic shop.Even mainstream superhero titles weren’t all bad with Marvels, Kingdom Come and enjoyable runs on Batman stood out in a decade where you could still get a variety in terms of comics.

But of course there were piles and piles of trash much of which still live in dealers 50p boxes but as a decade, the 90’s were more diverse and adventurous than most of your YouTube generation critics give it credit for. Indeed one could make the argument that it was a golden decade for comics and personally, I like to think it was as the number of great comics that came from that decade after the Cold War and before the War on Terror.

What happens is though, that there’s an assumption for history from people that look only at it from one point of view which is often the view of the lazy consensus. As is often the case the truth is more revealing, not to mention interesting than the commonly accepted view of it.

The comics industry is run by crooks and mobsters…

In my last blog I spoke about whether comics sales had declined, and laid out the question  ‘why have Marvel and DC failed so pitifully when the potential market is so huge?’ and said the failure of the direct market with a mix of talent/imagination being in short demand being blamed for this. I’m only partly right as the blame also lies with the big companies who act often like thugs from a Warner Brothers 1930’s gangster film.

Hyperbole right? Well not really. The entire comics industry was forged in the world of mobs and gangsters as laid out in Gerard Jones’s excellent book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic BookIndeed as late as the 80’s, the mob had a hand in the distribution pie as Jim Shooter points out in his blog.

But the direct market came along, shifted the focus of distribution from newstands to specialist comic shops, the mob were gone, and for a while it seemed like the crooks and charlatans running the industry were gone, or at the very least, reduced to a handful and the business became professional. Some creators even became famous outwith the comics bubble and some even became very rich by finding a formula and selling it to film or television to be developed.  However creativity was reduced as companies moved away from being creator focused to being focused on developing ‘properties’ created by men and women paid little to nothing who if still alive, watch corporations and their executives grow fat and bloated from their work.

If this sounds bitter, it’s because this is a sad truth of the industry. There’s the tales told at convention bars in the early hours that aren’t able to be told in public for obvious reasons of publishers doing their best to wreck people. Some of these stories are leaking out as people die, or they’re being used as part of Howard Chaykin’s splendid Hey Kids! Comics!, which outlines the history of comics that’ll never be told on a Marvel or DC film making of documentary.

Comics, or at least the world of superhero comics, are not free of old-school gangsters, but they’ve been replaced by the thuggery of the corporation. Fans of the corporation and it’s ‘property’ are a thing now as they defend corporations against the sons and daughters of those creators who in many cases died in perjury. The corporations that are now Marvel and DC have chased away creativity for formula, as a whole as there is some diamonds in the rough.

So we have an industry whose works are more popular than at any time since the American comic book was born nearly a century ago, and an industry struggling to sell comics but both Disney and Warners see comics as farms for the real money in films, TV and merchandising. Yet there’s hope. The internet has opened up comics to more people, while creators who would never get a foot in the door of the Big Two are now making themselves known through self-publishing online. People are coming into the world of comics who love the medium and aren’t just speculators who won’t be around in a few years.

Things are getting better but right now the industry is suffering development pains, so it’s down to those who can to help guide things through to we all come out the other side better than the past.

Have comic sales declined?

One of the big arguments of the Comicsgate lot is that sales of comics have declined because women or black people are writing them, so obviously that’s meant a serious decline.

In the real world, there’s a variety of reasons why sales have declined (the fact sales of superhero comics from Marvel and DC aren’t in dispute, the reasons however are) from video games, the internet, and pretty much everything you can think of. There are no simple answers.

Yet we actually live in a new Golden Age for comics. I can walk into any bookshop, see a comics/graphic novels section and see a variety of comics in a mix of genres from a vast swathe of creators of all sexes and races, and as for sales figures it turns out things are a lot more complex than we all firstly assumed with the theory that sales figures have been flat for 20 years with that argument going into its own complex grounds.

Sales of superhero comics through the Diamond catalogue are probably in terms of numbers, around the same but now so split and fractured among different companies that the Big Two (Marvel and DC) don’t get the market share they did. Then there’s digital and there’s also the elephant in the room that is piracy. Plus there’s the real evidence that for the Big Two, sales have declined with a top seller barely scraping 100k per month at a time when superheroes dominate the cultural landscape.

The question that has to be asked isn’t ‘why sales have dropped’ but ‘why have Marvel and DC failed so pitifully when the potential market is so huge?’. That’s a question that has an answer and it involves the failure of the direct market mixed with the lack of talent/imagination of the companies themselves. That’s also a question answered in the next blog…

Why don’t superheroes have daft sidekicks anymore?

Back in the day superheroes had daft sidekicks like this.

Or like this:

Or like this:

Those are the Martian Manhunter’s Zook, Captain Marvel’s Mr. Tawky Tawney, and Supergirl’s pet cat, Streaky. They were fun, stupid and silly. They reflected the fact readers were mainly young kids but they also realised that the concept of superheroes are essentially, daft, as if you can have a Superman why not then a Supercat?

It was fun, innocent times as the readership grew up and rather let this sillyness remain it was purged, so superheroes became dark, cats were no longer super-strong and sidekicks or groups like the Teen Titans became crammed full of murderers and psychopaths because of ‘darkness’.

The fact is when the main audience for superhero comics were late teens to 60 plus in age, the urge to read daft, simple things which are fun is lesser. Partly because of the urge to make a childish genre ‘dark and mature’ but mainly because these people don’t want to be seen as being kids and since the industry listens to these people more than they should we end up with grimness upon grimness. With one big exception, Squirrel Girl’s Tippy-Toe.

I miss the days where most superhero comics were silly, and I find the endless piss-coloured stream of grimdark superheroes tedious but I can dream of the days of flying cats and talking tigers thinking it to be better than grim, moody murderers.