Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Future of Comics

I've spent the last few posts talking all about the history of American Comics and I hope all twelve of you reading enjoyed that, because now we're going to move from the world of facts to a place that I've slowly been moving things towards since the last update all about art in the 90s.

Time for some wild speculation that will all be proven wrong in just a few years!

Now, the comics industry is in a very odd place right now, a great deal of which is due to the world of digital comics. Webcomics exploded years ago and the market is so over saturated that, while there is a great deal of good out there, it's hard to sift through it all to find that. And really, there is a ton of gold out there to be found, but I'll talk more about that another time. Right now, though, digital comics on the iPad and other similar devices is what the industry is grappling with.

In many ways, it's a fight similar to the battle that books are having with e-readers, just on a smaller scale. The two major players in the industry, Marvel and DC, both have their own apps within which one can download comics at a price that is usually comparable to the same price of print comics, but until very recently, one could only get older comics, nothing brand new, digitally. Though this has changed, the problem of pricing remains and highlights the major problem that both Marvel and DC run into with digital: the fear to be the first to dive in head first.

Some would say that, with DC's recent relaunch of their entire line of comics, they've taken this dive already. And yes, DC has made some good steps, with Marvel doing much the same. Both now make all, in the case of DC, and nearly all, Marvel, of their comics available digitally every Wednesday, the day new comics are released in old fashioned, brick and mortar stores. But the prices, as mentioned, are horrid. $2-$4 for a digital copy of a roughly twenty page comic? That just won't work. Not for long, at least.

Digital is going to grow, one way or another, and it's vital for their survival that both Marvel and DC figure out how to do things reasonably. Partial stories delivered monthly like serials of old, the current model of the industry, is a dangerous gamble when combined with the instant gratification that digital creates. Is the cost worth the time to read and then the time to wait for the next issue? At the moment, no, so two obvious things definitely need to happen, though when and if they actually do is questionable.

First, page counts for digital comics need to go up. Someway, somehow, the publishers have got to find a way to release larger books digitally. The idea of digital trades, collections of finished stories that put all the single issues together, is already out there and being done, and the pricing is a bit better, but it still isn't enough. If one is expected to pay $4 for a digital comic, at least double the size of the book. 40 pages for that price begins to feel more reasonable, and even more so at $2. Yes, it's low, but that's how digital works. The music world has gone through this with iTunes and you'd be hard pressed to find many people that are willing to pay more than $0.99 for a single song. A comic needs to be as near that price point as possible.

But this is more an issue for the Now than the Future, so I'll stop going in circles and try to look ahead here.

So yes, I have no doubts that digital is the future, at least in some form. And I also believe that, like books, the physical comics will never truly disappear, though they may become a smaller and smaller piece of the market on the whole. There will always be a group that want the physical things, the music world is, again, a good example of this.

Stories will likely find a middle ground between the current trend of heavily serialized, overarching story lines and the classic so-called "one and done" story, which is more self contained, obviously. In some ways, this is a fight of style that will never truly go away, but the last few decades stories seem to have shifted dramatically from one side to the other, with the industry more strongly on the side of heavy serialization right now. But these things tend to balance out over time, and both types have merit. I'm fairly sure the industry needs to do both, instead of one or the other, if only to bring in more readers who prefer different types of storytelling. You'd be amazed, or perhaps not at all, but how many fans have left comics in the last decade because they feel they can no longer pick up any single issue and enjoy it on its own.

Beyond this, I do think webcomics will mature on the whole. I'd like to believe that we can move away from all webcomics needing to be joke-a-day style comics and push into more serious topics and genres. The content delivery of the internet shouldn't restrict the genre and the main reason for the current over saturation is that 90% of webcomics really are just the same joke style comics as everything else...and not funny. There have always been a small number of more serious, traditional-styled comics and stories in the webcomic world, and I'm glad to see more and more appearing in the last couple of years. If these kinds of webcomics are allowed to grow, it will only do good and, at the very least, allow more people the chance to tell stories and possibly even get noticed by the industry at large.

There is one major danger in looking forward, though, and that is nostalgia. In many ways, American comics are built on nostalgia, and to a point that's okay. But if the industry gets caught up in only catering to the group that wants to relive their childhood through comics, things will not continue for long. New is vital. And new can be done with old things. Some of the best stories with classic characters have been told in recent years, and I have no doubt that even better stories lie ahead, but none of that can happen if the industry allows itself to grow smaller and smaller without reaching out beyond its current audience.

In many ways, that's why I made this blog and write all of these long winded ramblings about why I love comics and feel they're a legitimate art form. There is something here for everyone, but that still requires the publishers to put it out there FOR everyone.

Okay, well, it looks like I had less to speculate about than I'd thought. Still, there are a couple of similar topics to this I want to talk about all on their own. So as the days go by, I'll have another artist-specific post finally go up, tackle webcomics in a much more focused way, and probably finally get around to talking about this DC relaunch and what it means...since this Wednesday marks the last of their new books and it'll be a perfect time to look at how this can be a good or bad thing for the industry, both artistically and overall viability.

Oh, and one last thing. My last post I horribly disparaged the long-running, never ending Spider-Man story, The Clone Saga. I want to remedy that cruelness. Yes, it continued to almost end and then go on, and when it finally did end, no one was happy and it was a convoluted mess, but I will say one very good things came out of it that probably shows, more than anything, my age. Spider-Man's clone, Ben Reilly, is a great character and one that deserves a return. So there, the Clone Saga wasn't all bad. Just...mostly bad.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Look at Comics History: Art in the Modern Age

Okay. Here we are. This subject is the first of two that started my desire to run through comics history as I' done in the last week. Before I dive into the meat of this, though, I feel it's important to preface what I say. As I've mentioned before, I want to stay positive on this blog. This all comes about through a love of art and comics, especially when they come together. Sometimes, though, we have to look at failings and identify just what went wrong so as to know how to avoid those problems in the future, for the good of the medium. This is going to get into some fairly negative things and strong criticism on the artistic end of things, and I feel that is necessary and important.

But, and this is a big one, any and all critiques are about the art, NOT the artists. I hate that I feel the need to state that, but it's vital and my years of art school taught me that all of us, myself included, can have trouble separating art from artist when it comes to criticism. Good people make bad art and bad people make good art. That's life, and I'm not here to judge people, only to talk about art.

This leads into one other important bit that many people, artists and non-artists alike, have trouble accepting: While art is subjective, all art contains objective elements that make them up. There are objective qualities with which we can judge all works of art, simple things like use of line, shape, and perspective, etc. Now, this does not discount someone from LIKING a piece of art or a style that fails on those levels. Everyone has a different taste, and that's perfectly fine. I'm not out to judge taste, and I want to make sure that is as understood as the last point.

On that note, I want to put in a bit of honesty to back up the point. Jack Kirby is the king of comic book art. American comics owe everything to him, both stylistically and in the way stories are told. Everything about how he handled the technical aspects of art are damn near perfect and he knew exactly how to lead the eye across the page without error...not to mention the man had one of the greatest imaginations ever. But, for years and years, I looked at early comic art, especially Kirby's, and could not understand why it was good. It looks blocky, formless, and just primitive to my younger, untrained eye. After a few years of college, both making art and studying the masters of history, and I came back to see Kirby's art was shockingly greater than I had ever dreamed. Before this, I couldn't understand how composition truly worked, why he deconstructed forms in the way he did, or why I should care about the art when compared to modern art that was, on the surface, prettier and flashier, but not nearly as effective 90% of the time. I've heard this same story from many other young guys that are interested in comics, and I think it goes to show how much deeper art can be beyond simply whether you like something or not. There are fundamental reasons why some art works better than others, and understanding those can really open a person's eyes.

So. Comic art. Before I can dive into modern art, I have to, yet again, hit a couple things to back it all up and give it some grounding. Though I briefly ran through the different era's of comics through the past century, I didn't really focus on art styles and how they changed too much, but it's important to understand that a great deal has happened to art in comics through the years. Styles have evolved and changed to the point that, today, we have a mix of wonderful retro styles that emulate the best of the Golden Age creators, crazy stylized art that looks like almost nothing else, hyper-realistic art that most people never imagine could be in comics, and, of course, everything in between. Comic are is shockingly diverse today, and everyone is the better for it. But some things have been left behind because they were bad or just not as effective. That's how a medium evolves.

Artistically, the Modern Age of Comics started out very similar to the Bronze Age. George Perez's art on Crisis on Infinite Earths wasn't altogether different than what had come before. This isn't to say it was bad, as the style is wonderfully effective at telling stories, but Perez's art is much more what could be classified as 'traditional' comic art. One of the biggest breaks from this style to something more unique was thanks to Frank Miller in the previously mentioned Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Miller's art is heavy, filled with blacks and thick lines that help the mood of the book wonderfully. There's really nothing pretty about his work, with everything purely dark and hardened. It's exactly what the book needed. But Miller's style is very much his own, and though some have emulated him, it hasn't ever really caught on as a style.

Which leads right into a style that did catch on. As I talked about last time, the early 90s saw the rise of literal superstar artists: Jim Lee, Tod McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larson, and Marc Silvestri are the ones I see as the main guys to look at for defining the art, and, interestingly enough, all were founding members of Image Comics. This is, of course, just a small list and I'm likely to only talk about the first three, but the interesting thing is that all of these artists shared many similarities in style.

In some ways, it's hard to define what exactly makes the art of the 90s so different. Usually, it's easy to identify the second it's seen, but describing a trend is harder to do, so apologies if this comes out as nonsense. On the whole, though, the art sharpened. Literally sharpened. Lines tended to all come to points, and everything was given a sharp feel, on the whole, from everything to how forms were put together to lines used to shade an object and give it depth. The art of the 90s is heavily focused on line, almost to the exclusion of all other elements. It has the effect of making all of the art much more aggressive, and this fit the tone of the stories of the time fairly well.

This isn't an inherently bad thing for art, but it is distinct. I grew up on Jim Lee art, and though my tastes have shifted, his X-Men will always be my X-Men when I first think of them. While that's definitely nostalgia talking, to a point, I do think that Jim Lee is one of the best and defining artists comics has ever had. To me, this image here is the quintessential Jim Lee for me, and I expect many, many others. You can see the heavy, distinct use of line here without having to look hard. But this heavy focus on line starts to break down when it comes to the construction of form. It's a pretty heavy trait of 90s art that the men are huge and muscled while the women have tiny, tiny waists and giant chests, and most of that can be seen here, though not to an insane degree. The real problem here that really sticks out at me and is a pretty serious trouble in comics these days, still, is the way the women pose. None of that, save for maybe Storm's flying forward, looks at all comfortable or natural. There's a feel of posing for the reader, and that's a trouble comics still struggle with greatly, especially with regards to female characters.

In many ways, Todd McFarlane's art of the time is similar and there isn't too much different to be said. Instead, I really want to use his art to focus on another thing that became a big deal in the comic art of the time. The extreme use of line had a habit of just getting out of hand. Lines are just everywhere, and in some ways it feels like an indecipherable mess. There are many images where I feel bad for the colorists trying to determine what is what, as the glut of lines just leads to confusion. What's odd is that this became a way to tell if an artist was 'good'. For some reason, the idea seemed to be that, the more lines one used, the more detailed and stronger an artist was. The idea of implied line was lost and any subtlety was gone in an instant. The real beauty of much of the older comic art, especially Jack Kirby's, is subtlety and expert use of line...and where not to use line. The art of simplicity just disappeared entirely with the superstars of the 90s, and this harmed the medium greatly.

So now we get to a name I expect many reading this that know comics have been waiting for: Rob Liefeld. He is equally reviled and adored in comics today, and there are enough people out there tastelessly bashing the guy for his art. I'm not here to do that. And no, I'm not a fan of Liefeld's art, but that doesn't require me to come across as a complete asshole in the hopes of getting hits here. It is actually possible to discuss art one doesn't like in calm, intelligent terms without being a complete jerk, and that's my goal. So...

Liefeld's art essentially takes the stereotypes of how we seen 90s art, huge men and tiny women, etc, and expands on them ten fold. One can go on an on about those subjects, and others already have and, if you want to read them, you can find them pretty easily with a google search. All the points that I could really make about his art I've made in my generalizations already, just that he really took them in his art and pushed them further. So why not take a different direction and look at WHY these seemed to work, when on almost any artistic level, they're just bad?

I think it works and sold for some simple reasons that I hit on last post. In the 90s, comics became all about flash and no substance. It was all about ultra-violence, blood, guts, swords, big guns, and insane plots that really were just excuses to have cool, dramatic splash pages. Liefeld's art is all of this. The quality of the line work, the way the shapes just fail to actually look like what they should, and the problems with perspective that are there didn't actually matter to the readers of the time because Liefeld's art had what they wanted more: Violence, action, and guns. What does it matter if a figure doesn't have feet if, right there on the page, a guy's head is being chopped off? But that's the real problem. Art takes work, even comic art, and somehow, the industry was caught in a phase where the quality really stopped mattering and the content, as ridiculous as it was, really dominated. As much as some people look to the comics of the Golden Age and Silver Age as 'bad art', this is untrue and an uninformed opinion, whereas the art of the 90s really, as a whole, did active harm to the industry and the medium while really holding no value of its own.

Essentially, I think Liefeld's art tends to epitomize what went wrong with comics in the 90s, though it wasn't WHY things went wrong. That confluence of troubles I've already talked about, and the art is only a single part of that. To blame all of it on Liefeld or any artist in particular is stupid, when the companies themselves were happily releasing these books, speculators were eating them up, and so were fans...creating even more demand until it all just tanked and nearly destroyed everything. The fault is on everyone, but that doesn't mean we can't learn, and I think the medium has.

In all honesty, I think it's pretty clear that I'm not a fan of the 90s and comics. This was my first introduction to the medium and I didn't stay for long thanks to the art, and looking back I find that, unlike with other eras, I still don't find much with any merit. I could a great deal more negative than I have been, and maybe even more positive, but the former leads to coming across like a jerk and the latter would mostly be untrue. I've tried to at least be as objective as possible here, and if that makes it feel like I've just skipped over large topics to hit on here, well...I do apologize but it's likely I can't say much without devolving into angry ranting and...well, the internet has enough of that.

As I've said, if you look at comic art now, there is a diversity of styles that is unequaled in the past. It's almost as if all the years were building up to a huge artistic and sales crash in the 90s, just so we could come out of it, as a medium, wanting something more. Today, guys like Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld are still working, and that's great because they have fans that want exactly what they do. But the world of comic art is no longer dominated by just one style. Now there are men and women like Chris Samnee, Skottie Young, Amanda Conner, Marcos Martin, Sara Pichelli, Emma Rios, John Romita Jr., David Aja, Francis Manapul, and countless others out there creating art, all in a variety of styles that cover so many angles that there really is an art style for everyone.

So maybe we needed the insanity of art in the 90s. Maybe that homogenization of sharp, odd art that didn't really succeed at anything beyond being flashy and in-one's-face was the kind of wake-up call to artists and readers that diversity is good. So hey, maybe the 90s weren't all that bad.

Not that I suggest you go read Spider-Man's Clone Saga. Whew, that's still a mess.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Look at Comics History: The Modern Age (Part 2)

Continuing from my last post, still rambling on about the so-called Modern Age of Comics.

One of the biggest things to happen in the early 90s was the rise of independent publishers. Yes, there have always been many comic book publishing companies out there through all of comics history, but in the 90s, things went fairly crazy. The real why and how is, of course, complicated, but as this is my blog, I'm going to attribute it to one major development: The idea of comic creators as celebrities...minor ones, but still.

In the late 80s and early 90s, a long fight finally came to a head. The creator's rights movement finally gained enough strength to actually get some fairly major things done. Jack Kirby, without a doubt the most influential creator in comics from the Golden Age on, got into a heated legal dispute with Marvel Comics over the return of his original artwork over the years, much of which had supposedly disappeared. Its important to realize that, for the majority of comics history, original pages meant nothing to most people. The companies kept the original pages in warehouses or anywhere, really, if they kept them at all, but it was never a concern that the artist get the pages back. As time went on, this changed and some publishers, Marvel in particular, were quite difficult when it came to returning original pages. Jack Kirby, an icon for comics creators for obvious reasons, became a rallying point for other creators and this legal fight fueled the fires of more creator-owned works.

At the same time, newer artists were gaining popularity to the point where they became huge names, not just in the industry, but some even in popular culture of the day. Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld are probably the biggest names among them, but there were quite a few others. After time working for the two major publishers, their growing starpower mixed with a desire to actually own the work they were doing led to the creation of Image Comics. Image was founded on very strong creator's rights ideals, mainly that the company itself did not own the characters that were being published.

Image was really just a publishing center that consisted of multiple studios, each led by the various founding members. When Image launched, it truly did rock the foundations of comics at the time. Books like Spawn, Youngblood, and Savage Dragon made huge waves, directly and easily competing with the biggest Marvel and DC books of the time. But, at the same time, Image tended to capitalize on the problems of comics as a whole in the 90s, and is seen by many as a perfect example of what went wrong: tons of variant covers, foil, stories that tended towards flash more than substance, etc. These things, of course, have their fans, so I don't want it thought that I'm throwing out summary judgements, but its important to note.

Also important is that Image was in no way the only independent publisher to see success in the 90s. Valiant Comics, headed by former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, revived smaller books from the 60s and 70s such as Doctor Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter, along with creating its own line of superhero comics. Also of note is the publication of Art Spiegelman's Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and is a book that, to this day, has some of the strongest penetration into non-comic reading markets.

Now, most people tend to consider that we are, today, still in the same era of comics as all of this. I'm going to be different and say we are not. Comics from the mid 80s and through the 90s were a very specific thing, and as was mentioned in the last post, the entire industry barely survived the decade. But in 2000, subtle changes that were coming over a few years began to show themselves and, in my opinion, what comics had been in the 90s ended firmly.

In 2000, a still barely-surviving Marvel Comics launched a new line of comics, called Ultimate Marvel. This saw classic Marvel characters completely re-imagined in the modern world, starting over completely from the beginning, and in no way connected to the previous comics, which still ran side by side. The flagship book was, unsurprisingly, Ultimate Spider-Man, which brought Peter Parker very much back to his roots as a character.

Coupled with this new line of comics was an even more important development that happened at both Marvel and DC at roughly the same time. Throughout the 1990s, artist were king. Stories rarely mattered, and it was all about flashy art and big, explosive ideas that didn't necessarily come together well. Everything centered around the artists and trying to shock readers with supposedly "gritty" stories that just tended to mean they were ultraviolent and childishly full of blood. Some time right around the year 2000, both companies shifted towards a more writer focused aim. Story grew to be more important, though the art wasn't thrown to the side.

While I am an artist and truly love good comic book art, this is a decision that likely both saved the industry and will see it grow into something more as time goes on. Now, some older troubles in writing still continue, as I mentioned last time, both companies rely on yearly summer Event Comics that supposedly shake up the universe but rarely do. Its a cycle that will, hopefully, be moved away from in time, as it has the potential to just devolve into the same troubles stories had in the 90s, but that's a thing for me to talk about later.

The key point to make with all of this is that I think the so-called Modern Age of Comics only lasted from 1985 to 2000. And no, that doesn't mean we're in the Post-Modern Age now, or even the Digital Age, though things are heading that way. I don't know what to call where we are now, but its clearly something distinctly different from what happened in the 1990s.

Next post will be one more talking about this era as a whole, and I'm going to head back to a focus that really is important to me: Art. The good and the bad and thoughts on it all. Then, after that, just maybe, I'll finally get to thinking on the possibilities of what the future holds.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Look at Comics History: The Modern Age (Part 1)

With my last post, I got into a very brief run through of the history of American comics from the Golden Age to the Bronze Age, roughly 1938 to 1985. So in one long post, I hit on about fifty years of comics. A great deal was skimmed over to keep things somewhat brief, and later I'll remedy that by making more detailed posts about the eras in particular to flesh things out. Right now, I'm going to focus on what is referred to as the Modern Age of comics, running from 1985 or so until we decide something significant has changed in the industry, which is likely coming soon with the advent of digital comics. Maybe then we'll name it something better than "Modern Age" because the last thing we need is a Post-Modern and Post-Post Modern Age. Art History classifies enough in ambiguous ways already.

This will be a fair bit more detailed than the last post, since I'm only focusing on one period of time, and also might come across as more negative in some places. I do my best to keep things positive and not start screaming about the end of comics and all that, but there will be some hyperbole coming that I likely just can't I apologize in advance. And anyone I end up saying negative things about, I feel the need to say that I'm not judging these people personally, but only the work.

It should also be noted that this is going to be divided up into multiple posts, as there are many points to get across. This time in comics has seen quite a lot happening, and many of the effects are still with the industry, for good and for ill, so I'm going to arbitrarily divide these up and try to hit as much as I can.

Okay, that out of the way, let's get into this.

As we're technically still in it, really setting a true start on the Modern Age of Comics is a bit hard to do. In some ways, it was much more of a general shifting of things instead of a very dramatic change, such as what occurred from the Golden Age to the Silver Age. Many things that started in the Bronze Age would carry on into the Modern Age, especially in the early years, and become a defining piece of what we consider comics today. The metric I tend to use to define the beginning of the Modern Age is the DC event, Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis on Infinite Earths is a very important series when it comes to how comics have developed, so I'm going to spend a bit of time on it, specifically. The series was a 12-issue stand alone title, written by Marv Wolfman and pencilled by George Perez, that started in 1985, the goal of which was to simplify the DC universe. Until this point, DC had employed the idea of the Multiverse to explain different versions of the same character. This meant there were a handful of Earths with various numbers assigned to them on which different heroes lived. For obvious reasons, this created a bit of a quagmire when it came to story, and so the idea came to wipe it all away and start over. This series essentially ended the DC universe up until that point, killing a great deal of characters, most notably Supergirl and Barry Allen, the Flash that kicked off the Silver Age. The long-running comics Superman, The Flash, and Wonder Woman were all ended and, after the series, relaunched with new origin stories to fit into this new world.

What makes Crisis on Infinite Earths significant is the literal divide between the past and the present. DC removed the old to start over, as they've done just recently again. Almost more importantly, though, is that this series, combined with Marvel's Secret Wars in 1984, began the long running tradition of the so-called Event Comic. These are major stories that take all the heroes from the respective publishers and throw them together in one huge, supposedly game-changing story. Its a practice that has, in the past few years, become a near annual tradition for both Marvel and DC, and something that many decry as harming the industry as a whole.

But there is, obviously, more to the start of the Modern Age than literal breaks in history and events. The rise of anti-heroes and darker stories, something that started in the Bronze Age, came to a head in the mid-80s. There are two defining books for modern comics, especially when it comes to darker themes: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Batman: Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Both books were unlike anything that had come before.  

Watchmen took a very hard look at superheroes, turning from the usual positive portrayal and instead seeing the characters as mentally damaged in some way or another. There really are no heroes in the book, and the focus is entirely on a more realistic portrayal of the world and what kind of person would put on a costume to right wrongs. Rape, murder, extreme violence, and genocide are all there in the open, and while the book handles them well, many creators influenced by it would seemingly miss the point: These characters are not to be cheered for the horrible things they do. This is an important point, as many creators instead decided to embrace the violence and negativity, something that many fans of the time also happily accepted.

Dark Knight Returns is similar in some ways to Watchmen, but altogether different at the same time. The story is about Bruce Wayne coming back from retirement to fight crime again, now an old, bitter man. There is an air of negativity and distrust in the book that fuels the main themes and drive. Gotham City hates Batman and nearly all other heroes are no longer around, save for Superman who is just a pawn for the US Government. The violence here is, again, very heavy, and the themes of darkness and oppression really do reflect the time.

The reason I highlight these two titles, specifically, is the dramatic shift in tone of comics that they represent. Regardless of one's opinion on the books themselves, they were both monumental influences on everything that came after. It quickly became necessary to have dark, violent stories with anti-heroes in stories just to have them sell. Wolverine's rise to popularity is a testament to this, but he was not alone. Other characters were also created, or grew into, this need for darkness and harder themes: Spawn, Cable, Deadpool, and Venom to throw some names out there.

Along a similar vein, major characters were killed or replaced in the early 1990s. In 1992, DC killed Superman. Batman had his back broken and was replaced for a time. Captain America was fired. Long-time Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, was turned into a villain and then replaced by Kyle Rayner. Stories seemed designed only to shake things up and get quick sales, with another even more dangerous trend evolving.

Specifically, I'm referring to the comic book speculator's market. Around the late 80s and early 90s, the idea began to go around that comics were really worth quite a lot of money. This was perpetuated by the sale of classic comics, Action Comics #1 and other major landmarks from decades ago, at extremely high prices. Now, the reason these old comics sold for so much was for the simple fact that they hadn't been in print for decades and were, and this is important, actually rare. Somehow, though, publishers and speculators missed this. People with no interest in the stories would buy comics hoping to send their kids to college by selling it. Publishers started to create gimmicks like foil covers, glow-in-the-dark covers, and other ridiculous ideas simple because they sold.

The problem here is simple, though. The reason the comics did sell was because all the people speculating expected them to be worth tons of money. But the publishers printed metric tons of them, meaning they weren't at all rare and weren't worth a damned thing. Unsurprisingly to anyone with any sense of how these things work, the comic market crashed. Everything tanked, with Marvel filing for bankruptcy in 1996 and the entire market for comic books nearly drying up entirely.

It has been around 15 years and the industry still hasn't completely recovered from this crash.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Look at Comics History: Golden Age to the Bronze Age

I know I've been quiet on the blog for a while, but things are rolling along quite well on other projects and that's taken some slight priority. But here I am again, ready to tackle something rather insane. My real goal here, and this may take a few posts beyond just this one, is to talk about where the comic medium might be going in the future, in terms of form (digital vs. print vs. beamed into the brain), genre, style, etc. But to get down to all of that, it helps to have a quick run through of how the medium has evolved over the years.

So first, some history. As I'm mainly focusing on the American comic form, the best place to start is with what is referred to as the Golden Age. This began, well, is generally agreed upon to have begun, with the release of Action Comics #1 in 1938. This was, of course, the debut of Superman, a character that is ingrained in culture today very firmly outside comics. The Golden Age saw the birth of many of the most famous superhero characters: Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Human Torch to name a few. But this era also saw a large amount of genre diversity, too, as Westerns and Romance titles were very strong sellers at that time. As a whole, though, through the Golden Age, superheroes were king.

There are a great many big names in regards to creators of this time, the people working to define the language and style of what American comics would eventually grow to become. Will Eisner, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster,  Jack Kirby, and Milton Caniff are just a few.

But as World War II ended, the popularity of superheroes faded somewhat, and it left room for other genres to begin to grow. War stories, Scifi, Western, Romance, and Horror began to grow in strength and popularity, and many superhero books of the time were ended to make room for these new genres. Around 1954, the comics medium came under fire from certain people in the US Government as causes of juvenile delinquency and other problems. It is a trouble that has happened to many forms of entertainment that young people latch onto, from rock and roll to video games, and is not likely to go away in the future. But the result of this was the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory board that made sure all comics were 'safe' for children. This was a death sentence for many of the popular titles of the early to mid-1950s, as crime books and horror books were especially targeted. Thus, publishers turned back to superheroes.

In 1956, the Silver Age was born with the release of Showcase #4, the first appearance of the new Flash. At the time, the only surviving superhero books were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and none of them were doing well. The Flash revitalized the genre and captured an entire new generation of kids. Soon, Golden Age favorites returned in new form, with a new Justice League, Green Lantern, and others. A few years after this rebirth of the genre that was kicked off by DC Comics, a young Marvel Comics got in on the same genre. With Marvel came the birth of even more well known characters: The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Daredevil, The Avengers, and the return of the Golden Age hero, Captain America.

The Silver Age is very much the birth of what we see today as modern superhero comics. Flaws and problems became vital to the characters, and the stories began to grow more complex as the medium developed and grew. But even more, this is the era of many of the defining creators in American Comics: Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Gene Colan, Steve Ditko, Joe Kurbert, Neal Adams, and Jim Steranko, to name just a few. Steranko, in particular, helped to push the art into a new direction, with his art on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. moving from what one expected from comic stories into surrealism.

Around 1970, the Silver Age came to an end. This gave way to the appropriately named Bronze Age, an era of comics that is generally defined by the darker stories and tones that began to creep into comics. Leading up to this era, many of the creators that had been in comics for decades moved on, retired, or were promoted to editorial and less directly creative positions in the various comics companies. This time also saw the beginnings of the shift in audience of comics, moving away from children to a smaller, more specific market of fans.

But for all the negativity that last paragraph implies, there were many interesting developments during the Bronze Age, such as a slight widening of genres being made available again. This mostly began with Marvel Comics release of Conan the Barbarian, which eventually lead to various other pulp books such as John Carter of Mars, Red Sonja, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The horror genre also began to regain footing in the Bronze Age, thanks to books like Ghost Rider and Tomb of Dracula.

These books were generally well received and successful, but still, superheroes were king. The Bronze Age saw the death of Spider-Man's longtime girlfriend, Gwen Stacy,  and the death of Aquaman's infant son. Both of these came at the hands of villains in the books, and it was a strong turn towards much darker villains in comics. The book Green Lantern/Green Arrow tackled issues such as drug addiction and racial inequality, and Batman received a resurgence after the years of camp due to the Adam West TV Show of the 1960s. The Bronze Age also saw the growth of racial diversity in comics, with the creation of Luke Cage, Storm, Blade, a new Green Lantern, John Stewart, and others. 

On the art end, House Styles dominated the two major companies of the time, though not without some diversity. DC's general style emulated Neal Adams, while Marvel's a slightly more realistic take on the classic Jack Kirby style. This does not mean art was at all restricted, as this was the era of great artists like George Perez, John Buscema, John Byrne, Frank Miller, and Walter Simonson. Especially important for creators is this era brought the beginnings of a creator's rights movement, with artists and writers getting more open credit for their work and pencillers being allowed to keep their original pages.

Next I'll hit on the Modern Age and then get into where things could be going and where I think they should. Reading that, its quite an egotistical statement on its own, but hey, this is my blog and I mean it for the best.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Superhero Genre

When the word 'comics' comes up, in many cases, its shorthand for 'superhero comics'. Comics are, as I've addressed a few times and is fairly easy to see looking beyond the surface, a medium and not a genre, but that's neither here nor there. In many ways, American comics ARE superheroes. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the main ones being that, as comics struggled through the 50s and 60s, almost all the other genres that were popular at the time (romance, horror, scifi comics, etc) just didn't survive while superhero books did. A complicated history led to all of this, but right now I want to focus on the genre itself rather than the why.

But before going further, a clarification is important to make here. Superheroes are a genre, yes, but not as specific as something like science fiction. The superhero genre really is a larger, overarching idea that can and does encompass practically any genre one could want. There's science fiction (Fantastic Four, Green Lantern), horror (Hellboy, Ghost Rider), crime/noir (Batman), and various others depending on exactly how you want to nail things down. But while the specifics can alter based on these sub-genres of the superhero idea, the base is there.

And really, the idea of a superhero is pretty simple. So simple that most everyone understands the concept and the genre itself without needing any explanation. Yet superheroes are generally considered childish fantasies or something only for a fringe group of older fans of the characters. This is so extreme that it goes to the point where superheroes alone are the main reason why many people never give comics a chance as a medium, thinking its all ridiculous stories about people fighting crime while wearing tights. Its hard to fault this point of view, but it brings me to a thought that has been on my mind for a while now that I wanted to address.

It has been said many times by people much smarter than I that Superman, Spider-Man, and all the other heroes are the modern equivalents of the classic mythical heroes like Hercules and Perseus. That singular, powerful hero with abilities beyond the normal human, be it in intelligence or actual powers, who comes to save the day for the mortals. While the dressings are different, the core is the same. These classic stories aren't just for kids or some select group, and neither should superheroes. Sure, kids SHOULD have comics for them, and that's a problem all in its own, but the very idea isn't exclusively limited to an age group.

In fact, there is another modern equivalence to all of this that really only removes the tights from the equation: the action hero. Die Hard, Rambo, Predator, the James Bond movies, the Indiana Jones movies, and countless more present characters that are, essentially, superheroes. They are idealized humans in various ways that, in almost all cases, at the very least have the power to take insane punishments and keep fighting. Strip away many of the dressings and here, again, we have mythical heroes of a modern time.

All of these characters, from Hercules to Spider-Man to James Bond, are ingrained in our culture at a very deep level. But if there is so much similarity here, is it really something as simple as tights and powers that hold superheroes back still?


But then again, maybe not.

All of these archetypes of heroes have their own specific uniforms, just some are more innocuous than others. James Bond has his tuxedo and gadgets, Indiana Jones his fedora and bullwhip, Perseus has his polished shield and helm of darkness, and Batman his tights and utility belt. Signature identifying pieces of all these characters and they all tend to share a great deal with one another. But these days, we tend to accept the action hero with normal clothes and a gun, with the amazing power to never be shot unless its dramatically appropriate, over someone with bulletproof skin, saying that the latter is somehow more of a childish fantasy.

It isn't, of course. They're both equally ridiculous, and that's really what I've been working my way around constantly here. Not only that, but it isn't necessarily something that will always remain so. Trends and cultural ideas have a habit of changing, and the rise of superheroes in movies seems to be pushing them into a more accepted cultural place. Obviously, I think this is a very good thing. There is much more to many superheroes than the fact that they just punch bad guys, a strong contrast to most modern action heroes that...well, just shoot bad guys.

The real hope I have behind all of this, which I think is the hope of most any sane person that enjoys superheroes, is that the rise of superhero movies does help turn more to the comics. There is something for everyone in the medium, kids and adults alike, and even if a person swears they hate superheroes...there's a chance they might just not have found the right one yet.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Few Thoughts on My Artist Posts

Okay, this is going to be a bit short. I've been having some trouble writing more Artists You Should Know, and instead of staring at a blank page about it, I figured I'd tackle it head on and make a post all about that problem.

The goal of all of those posts is, of course, to widen the notice of very good artists and storytellers to an audience that may not know they exist and may think of comics as just a bunch of crude drawings to tell jokes. Now, as I've said over and over, my real goal is to present these people to other artists in the fine art world and the art education world: professors, students, etc. I know at least a few read the blog, so its working some, I hope, but I'm trying to find ways to really push these to people like art professors more without being annoying. Sure, comic fans may already have an awareness of these artists, and that's great, but what about those young art students that are just learning art history? Don't they deserve to learn about comic masters and modern comic artists as much as the fine art world?

I'm purposefully focusing on more modern, working artists for these posts. This is mainly due to the fact that there are already tons of resources for information and validation of guys like Jack Kirby and and Will Eisner. The masters that made comics what they are today and really defined a style and way of telling stories sequentially are well dealt with in other places. But working artists now? Not really so much, so I figure I could say a few things and get some eyes on people.

Which comes to the real stumbling block with the artist pieces I do here: picking an artist. There are so, so many current artists that deserve attention. Oddly enough, this large amount of people I want to talk about, even removing the greats of the past, is still enough to cause me to be unsure of who to talk about next.

So as a bit of a tease, here are the people on my not-so-short list for the future: Paolo Rivera, Sara Pichelli, David Aja, Dustin Weaver, Stuart Immonen, Jock, Alex Maleev, Stefano Caselli, Humberto Ramos, Marcos Martin, Olivier Coipel, Mark Morales, Laura Martin, Francis Manapul, Salvador Larocca, Frank Quitely, and a ton of others. They'll come in no particular order and that's the tough part, but they'll come.

The key point I keep harping on is the true struggle, though. These men and women are artists that are ignored by a large section of the art world that teach new artists. If comics get a mention at all, its usually much more 'indie' creators that tend to be something closer to post-modern artists and that opens a whole different can of worms. I am, clearly, a firm believer that more 'traditional' comic artists deserve just as much recognition in an art history course covering modern times as any fine artist, and that's why I keep hitting these points over and over.

Superhero comics are a truly American art form. They aren't kitsch, and the artists that work on them do not deserve to be brushed aside as they are continuing a tradition of American art that has gone unnoticed only because of how easily available it is to the masses. And beyond even that is the other point I'll never let go of: The ability to tell a story in series of static images is in no way easy, and it is a skill that can help nearly any artist.

So there's a slight rant from me, mostly on the mild side. In many ways, I wish I had been this strongly dedicated to these ideas when I was in college, but better late than never! And, hey, if you have any desire to see my own attempts at making comics, with, of course, my wonderful wife, check out our art blog as we finally start growing it. Yes, that's the second shameless plug, but I'm allowed that!

Don't worry, next post will be either one of the artist talks or another more heady, philosophical talk! I shall cease this rambling mess for now! Enjoy the holiday weekend.