Here is What Really Killed Comics

 
 
 
Everybody has a theory of how the American comic book industry died.

“It was the early 90s investor boom,” some say. “The glut of variant covers and similar sales gimmicks created a bubble, and when it burst it took out the direct market.”

Others lay the blame on publishers driving out seasoned writers and letting rock star artists run the show.

 

Still others fault “those pesky SJWs” for turning the Big Two comics publishers #woke–which, the saying goes, will soon make them broke.

Everyone has a pet theory, but few notice that none of these explanations are mutually exclusive. The comics industry has become like an elephant in the dark. Fans and marginally interested social commentators alike are groping it, searching for a definitive cause of death.

Perhaps comics fans don’t really want to know. The stage magician’s audience want to believe there are coins behind their ears.

Like an onlooker who happened to see the coin hidden in the magician’s palm, I have come into the knowledge of how the deed was done.

 

Here’s what really killed comics

 

Here’s what really killed comics.

First, some necessary background. A close friend–we’ll call him Research Guy–has over the past few months embarked on an innocent quest to rebuild the long lost comic book collection of his youth. He created a spreadsheet of back issues he wished to buy going back to the 50s.

For easier identification, Research Guy added notes to his list, highlighting any significant events which took place in a given issue. He gave pride of place to famous character introductions, the first appearances of important concepts, and inclusion in major story lines.

Organizing many hundreds of comic books in this way yielded unexpected insights. My friend spotted a number of patterns running through almost all comic books within almost exactly the same time frames. It was as if the comics industry as a whole had an overarching life cycle.

This is the cycle Research Guy identified, using the timeline he observed for Marvel Comics, which gives a clearer representative sample.

  1. Growth (1960s): Iconic new characters debut regularly. Major concepts that will shape continuity introduced. Universe-defining events frequently take place.
  2. Maturity (1970-1980s): Introduction of new ideas tapers off as series hit their stride. Eventful individual issues still common.
  3. Stagnation (late 80s-early 90s): Writing quality declines. Increased reliance on gimmicks to drive sales. This includes replacing beloved icons with diversity doppelgangers and first signs of wokeness.
  4. Decay (Mid 90s-Mid Aughts): Narrative wasteland in which nothing of consequence happens for years. The worst aspects of sales gimmicks and nascent wokeness combine in the following pattern: Iconic character killed off, series reboot with new issue #1 often replacing venerable lead with diversity character, original numbering and lead character quietly brought back a few months later.
  5. Death/Shambling zombie status (Now) 

Sharing many qualities of a superhero himself, my estimable concept artist ArtAnon swooped in with additional sources that shed bright light on the elephant’s graveyard.

It was the web site of Fantastic Four superfan Chris Tolworthy that finally put all the pieces together. Quite independently, Chris gathered supporting evidence for all of Research Guy’s observations.

Look at this chart featured on Chris’ site:

 
 
 
 
The events noted on the timeline map almost perfectly to Research Guy’s comics life cycle.

  1. 1961-1967: Under the guidance of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the story lines in Marvel’s regular titles organically grow into the largest shared continuity in literary history. 1963 stands as the high water mark for the creation of new Marvel characters.
  2. 1968-1973: End of the Silver Age. Marvel sold to Gordon Gecko prototype Martin S. Ackerman. Number of monthly titles explodes. IRL time replaced with Marvel Time (Reed Richards said to have fought in Korea instead of WWII, Gwen Stacy killed to maintain status quo of Peter being single, Franklin Richards’ age fluctuates wildly, etc.)
  3. 1988: Lee’s misguided directive to give readers the “illusion of change” instead of real change renders dramatic tension impossible. Readers catch on that the status quo ante will always return. There are no more great universe-wide stories after this point, though great standalone stories are still being published.
  4. 1991: Character development rolled back and further character development forbidden by editorial fiat.
  5. 1996: The Heroes Reborn and Amalgam events kill Marvel’s 30+ years of continuity. Marvel goes bankrupt. New owners cement the shift in focus from publishing single floppies to movie licensing.
 
Rather eerie how two separate comics historians’ research lines up, ain’t it?
 
 
 
 
The one line of data Research Guy lacked was sales figures over the period in question, which Chris helpfully provides. As you can see in the chart above, the overall downward trend is pronounced.
 
 
Comics fans once read Marvel books for the sense of continuity, high-stakes drama, and relatable characterization. The Marvel Universe was like the corner bar where they could drop in and catch up with the neighborhood regulars. They watched those characters’ lives unfold over decades. And then the building was pulled down brick by brick to be replaced with a corporate chain joint. The prices rose while the quality dropped.
 
 
One caveat: The downward trend was temporarily reversed under the aegis of legendary editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. But the recovery on his watch only proves Chris and Research Guy’s point. Shooter revived Marvel by being a stickler for continuity and shipping quality books on time. Following that formula is all that’s necessary to bring comics back. 
 
 
Don’t expect to see the Big Two embracing Shooter’s business model anytime soon. Marvel began its transition from a comic book publisher to a brand management company in 1968. That shift in focus would be concretized in 96 and made irrevocable with the company’s absorption by Disney.
 
 
As for DC, they’ve operated as a brand management outfit since the 50s. Marvel’s decline has rightly been described as them becoming a clone of DC.
 
 

“The Big Two got out of the comic book publishing business and into the brand management business”

 
 
That right there is your culprit. The Big Two got out of the comic book publishing business and into the brand management business. The editors checked out, and good writing became an afterthought. Flashy art and gimmicks became the order of the day. The resulting investor bubble popped, and woke capital moved in to pick the bones clean. They’re still at it now.
 
 
This creativity crisis isn’t limited to comics. I’ve chronicled how every branch of pop culture from novels to video games to film suffered a creative collapse–right in the late 90s time frame noted by Chris Tolworthy and Research Guy.
 

Revitalizing the culture will take a new generation of creators dedicated to telling high-stakes stories of engaging characters on a timetable audiences can rely on.

 

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This pro author has been pleasing readers for years. I’ve run and fulfilled two successful crowdfunding campaigns, and my third record-breaking campaign is now live on Indiegogo with just two days left. Support the renaissance in popular fiction. Please consider backing the project today!

 

Originally published here.

Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel., and its sequel, The Secret Kings, became a 2017 Dragon Award finalist for Best Science Fiction Novel. He's currently crowdfunding his latest work Combat Frame XSeed: CY 40 Second Coming on Indiegogo. Read more of his work at brianniemeier.com or pick up his books via Amazon.

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