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.

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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.

I’m suffering from Superhero film exhaustion

It’s New York Comic Con this weekend which means reams of stuff being pumped out by the major film and TV studios, lots of cosplay, some stuff about games and toys, plus more TV and film. Everything!! Even some comics at a comic convention! Shocking I know.

Anyhow, the new Aquaman trailer has dropped and it looks alright.

I’m not going to see it at the cinema because it’ll be a waste of time, and frankly, I’ll save my tenner and wait til it comes on the likes of Netflix. I don’t think it’s going to be a terrible film; in fact it’ll probably be fun but we’ve been here and frankly, it is bloody Aquaman, a character who’s been a running joke for much of his six plus decades since he first appeared in 1941.

There’s also a Venom film out this week which is getting dreadful reviews and indeed, trailers look appalling but again, I’ll catch it on Netflix because I’m bored with massive media companies milking their properties regardless of whether people actually want to see them, or they’ll be very good. Instead it’s a case of throwing product out (and this is indeed, product), having a big week or two then tailing off. Repeat and rinse.

But this is all becoming exhausting, and frankly, boring. We’ve got a new Batman film coming drawn probably from the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, plus a few Joker films also drawn from Miller and Moore. Of course film companies are going to milk a genre while its hot, but this is genuinely exhausting to muster up any joy anymore. There will of course be a time when the superhero film tails off as studios suffer diminishing returns and the taste of audiences change onto something else. We’ll still have superhero films just not as many, and not as many pointless ones telling stories we’ve kind of seen before.

Til then try to get excited about bloody Aquaman!

RIP Norm Breyfogle

The definitive Batman artists on the late 80’s and most of the 90’s, Norm Breyfogle, has sadly passed away at 58. Norm was one of those Batman artists who pop up every decade to redefine the character and indeed, if you’re around 30-40 and started reading comics as a kid then Breyfogle’s Batman is probably the first version you saw.

I loved Breyfogle’s work. It dropped at a time when DC Comics took risks, even with their prize cash cow Batman, who at that point in the late 80’s with the first Tim Burton Batman film was enjoying success like never before so dropping Breyfogle as the main artist in Detective Comics, DC’s secondary Batman title then written by Alan Grant and John Wagner was a comfortable mix of the old and new as Breyfogle took inspiration from the likes of Neal Adams, Carmine Infantino, Nick Cardy, and then newer artists like Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane, but quickly developed a style purely his.

Throughout the 90’s Breyfogle made Batman his own, and with Alan Grant they carved the last great version of Batman before the character turned into someone who could do anything, beat anyone and the idea of a detective fighting evil in his city slipped away.

With writer Alan Brennert he drew Batman: Holy Terror, an alternative version of the Batman myth where Bruce Wayne has been brought up within the church in a story which published today would probably cause merry hell. In fact I doubt with America swinging so far to the right that a company like DC would even commission this.

Breyfogle went to great heights in the 90’s and it’s forgotten he was one of Malibu’s Big Star Names when they launched the Ultraverse with his own title, Prime, being one of the flagship titles.

In the 2000’s things changed. DC sacked Alan Grant from the Batman titles while Breyfogle’s art didn’t fit a DC establishing a house style and a changing editorial structure which Grant in particular was a severe critic of. This left Breyfogle in some barren times before in 2014 he suffered a stroke and was left crushed upon the rocks of the American healthcare system.

After I had my own stroke I chatted with Norm a few times on social media and did my own wee thing to raise his plight but from conversations it was clear a mix of worry about finances and post-stroke pain (something that without painkillers leaves you in constant chronic pain when it hits) but there was always humour and a will to do better. Sadly he’s no longer around to spread his humour and at 58 left the world far, far too early. He leaves behind a body of work I hope is reappraised as be some of the very best superhero work of the last 25 years, and I hope that his death highlights the problems comics professionals have with working without a safety net, especially in a country like America. If anything that may mean no other professional has to struggle as Breyfogle did and that’s a good way to remember a man who gave so much to the industry.

Comicsgate supporters have no idea what they’re talking about

I’ve spoken about Comicsgate before, but it is one of things that isn’t going away so a bit like a fungal infection we’re going to have to deal with it, and one of the ways it seems we’re going to have to do it is by breaking things down as simply as possible as it is clear Comicsgaters have no idea what the fuck they’re on about.

If that sounds obvious then let me explain. The main goals of Comicsate that the creator Jamal Igle collated are as follows..

1. Hire people based on merit. Pay your dues and you eventually get your own title, Noone jumps the line because of race sex whatever

2. Retain people based on sales

3. Don’t attack the customers. in a word professionalism

4. Minimize politics in stories.

Sounds nearly reasonable til you look below the surface or have any sort of knowledge of the history of the American comic book industry because 1/ is nonsense as people have been hired because of past glories, or who they know for decades but they were white men, but it does seem to be only women or non-white people who they have issues with and the idea that  say, women have jumped the gun is utter bollocks is you’re aware of your history.

2/ is complex. I’ve seen Comicsgaters argue that ‘Person X’ shouldn’t be in comics because their titles doesn’t sell, but the fact is they may have a small print-run but all of it sells to the direct market rather than having overstocks sit with the publisher. Something like say, X-Men Gold, will have large amounts left over. Also if you have someone who’s been writing a title for years and it sells well, but as a publisher you feel the title needs a bit of a shake-up then sales don’t enter into it. Nobody, and I mean nobody in comics is safe from this. Again, there’s plenty of examples of this in history.

3/ is simple. The customer isn’t always right and frankly, if you’re being a wanker online to a creator then you’ll get it back. Customers should be listened to but any business needs to gain new customers, and if old ones don’t like it, then fuck off. It really isn’t even as brutal as that, but this is complex and can’t be reduced to simplistics.

4/ is bullshit. It can be argued the creation of the American superhero is in itself a political act as Superman was created by two Jewish-American immigrants to give a voice to the American working class, including America’s growing immigrant population. Superman was their protector in his early years before he became a propaganda figure in WW2.

And while watching one of the many threads on Twitter about this, I spotted this post.

I pointed something out which got a reaction…

Ethan van Sciver has indeed went right to the end-user and managed to get half a million bucks off them for this.

Now if people want to give their money to this is fine, but don’t think this is new. It isn’t. People like Dave Sim or the Pini’s were re-writing how the industry worked back in the 1970’s, and self-publishing was hardly a new concept then. The rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter ensures that any creator can go direct to an audience and raise the capital needed to publish their work, so Van Sciver isn’t changing the world, regardless what his followers think.

No, the fact is Comicsgaters are being taken advantage of. They don’t have the knowledge of the history of comics, or indeed, how the industry works. They’re also seemingly universally youngish having been brought up on a diet on 90’s Image Comics, or your pretty stands Marvel/DC superhero fare. They don’t want ‘change’ because their voices have always been listened to & the idea they’re not the focus of attention means Van Sciver and others on the far right, sorry ”alt-right”, have zoomed in to fill people’s heads with nonsense. Essentially they’ve weaponised ignorance and that’s dangerous potentially as Comicsgate (like Gamergate before it) does have a large number of people involved in it and those at the top of the foodchain are perfectly aware they’ve got young, malleable, alienated men and boys to use as footsoldiers in this culture war they’re desperate to start.

Comicsgate isn’t going away but neither is it going to change the industry. What we have to do is ensure it doesn’t grow to suck up more people and we can do that by educating people. If people don’t want to listen then we have a problem but we have to fight the ignorance of Comicsgate.