Comics Have Reached a Crossroads

We're finally there.

Gone are the days of the book burnings. The Senate hearings. The death and return of Superman. Batman and Robin the movie. DC Comics has just announced that they'll be running commercials for their relaunch. The ads will be overseen by the big WB in this scenario, meaning they might not suck entirely.

Have comics reached a tipping point?

It's a question that can be asked of any medium at any time. Hell, Best Buy is in the process of suing NewEgg for use of the word "geek," which, last I checked, was just a word that was around before either of the corporate entities. With comics though it's a little trickier. Comics have long strived for relevance as a medium.

Considering that Captain America was created as propaganda for the US war machine in World War II, it's a wonder that there was a time when comics were reviled. Now though we're at a point where from a the span of May 7 to July 22 we'll see four comic movies released in theaters. And these aren't just filler movies that studios are publishing because rights are about to lapse.

No, these are major, tentpole films that the studios are relying on to carry their profits for the year. The world wide box-office total for Thor currently sits at $428,684,857, while the total for X-Men: First Class sits at $144,453,150. That's close to half a billion dollars between two films that don't feature characters recognizable to the casual comic book fan. But the fact is that both Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox expected them to be blockbusters. And they have been.

Disney buying Marvel was something of a shock, but it made sense with Time Warner owning DC. Only, you wouldn't know Time Warner owned DC until recently. It's only been since Marvel's new owner that the two publishers have ramped up production on everything comic and that's primarily because the suits see dollar signs in the properties. Naturally, this interest in comics has had a trickle down effect on comics coming from publishers not named Marvel or DC.

Kickstarter was recently mentioned as being the "#3 U.S. Indie Graphic Novel Publisher" according to Publisher's Weekly. Let that sink in a little. Now, the headline is slightly misleading because Kickstarter isn't benefitting from thousands upon thousands of people donating money to fund various indie graphic novels. It would be foolish though to discount the organization's impact on getting more comics into the hands of more readers, despite the somewhat non-traditional model.

One of the more shocking aspects of Kickstarter is that people are funding physical books. Physical books aren't dead yet, but they are working towards a slightly diminished importance. Marvel could be considered the first to embrace the digital comics wave that came with the iPad. You would have to say though that DC is the first to fully embrace it, offering comics day and date in digital and print.

In the wake of DC's announcement there have been lots of talent that have been put out to pasture so to speak. DC has been steadily announcing the new titles and creative teams and there's been a definite paring down of talent working at the company. This has lead Steve Niles to proclaim a Creator-Owned Call to Arms, asking that those who may have been let go to channel their talents into their own works. And he's right.

These are some of the most talented individuals in the industry who have the chance to leverage their participation with DC series into new series of their own. Great series that can buck the superhero in tights trend and take comics to new places. Even the Superman redesign eschews the classic underwear on the outside look for something more uniform and "mature."

What all this boils down to is that we, as the comic community, are at a crossroads. One path will take us towards more and more exposure to comics in general. More movies, more money for the right players and more awareness and respect of comics as a literary genre. Comics are growing up and there's so much talent out there that can capitalize on it and make some really great things happen.

The other path will take us towards a rebellion of sorts, where the indies rise up against the corporates. The big two work to corner the market and crowd out the indies by snapping up all the best indie talent. In this scenario, the creativity is stifled by the duopoly at the top. I don't think this is the route we're headed, but it is something that should be worrisome on some level.

Marvel and DC represent the rising tide that floats all boats and indies can gain a ton from that tide. Is it bad that a fourth Spider-man film is due out next year? Or that Christopher Nolan has proved that you can take a comic book hero and make a movie that relies more on cheesy sound effects and tights? Not at all. The danger lies in allowing the bigger parent companies in Disney and Time Warner to take control of the industry through sheer size.

Indie comics can coexist with corporate comics in comic book stores. Digital comics can coexist with print comics everywhere. If the content is good people will read. If it's bad, they won't. We should expect to see more comics' exposure in more mainstream media outlets. The comics community is about to be exposed to the world, so everyone needs to be ready for their close-ups.

Here's hoping we choose the path that leads to more respect of comics as a whole. Personally, I'm tired of wearing my underwear on the outside.