• Longform 

    Five Years Later: How Comics Have Changed, and Where They’re Going

    By | May 5th, 2014
    Posted in Longform | 3 Comments

    Sometimes it’s really hard to believe that Multiversity has been around for five years. I’ve been with the site since just shortly after it launched (if you want to have a laugh, read my first article here), and in that span we’ve changed a lot. Writers come, writers go, column ideas start and finish with the greatest of ease — you name it. We’ve made great friends, we’ve made people upset, we’ve turned those people into friends, and once, notably, I even had my favorite writer – and the man who inspired me to write the piece – tell me I was staggeringly wrong.

    That was fun.

    In short, Multiversity Comics is completely different than it was when it was Matt and I endlessly arguing about whether or not to run certain pieces of content in 2009 (alright, maybe not that different). But that makes sense, as comics themselves have changed an unbelievable amount over that time.

    When we first got started at Multiversity, there were other journalists who suggested – when prodded by questions from myself – that we shouldn’t even bother, as this whole thing was pretty much dying and was a waste of time. And it’s easy to forget, five years ago people were lamenting the oncoming doom of comics as an industry, and with good reason.

    Five years ago, comics were on their last legs, and no one knew if things could or would change. But then, like a phoenix, the comic industry rose again — and in March 2014, sales were up 23% over March 2009, and 2013 was 17% ahead of where comics were five years previous. Even beyond that, comics are better, and things are happening that are stimulating the growth of those good comics.

    In fact, and this might be a controversial opinion, but I think we’re in the most exciting time in comics ever.

    The New 52
    It’s thanks to things like the ascent of creator-owned, digital comics’ development, the rise of social media, the expansion of the reader base, “Saga”, “The Walking Dead”, Marvel NOW!. Hell, even The New 52 played an important part in the recovery of comics. Some would even argue especially the New 52. They’ve all helped lay the foundation for comics recovery and the development of comics into something better and more resilient than they were when Multiversity first started.

    But don’t just believe me. Let’s examine what those biggest changes were, and how they all are omens for a future that is even brighter than what we see right now.

    The Digital Boom

    Digital comics existed before 2009, but they were something treated with much trepidation by nearly everyone involved. Readers feared their impermanence, retailers were angry with their role as potential enemies, and publishers often seemed like they didn’t know what to do with them.

    But over the past five years, digital comics have developed into something that isn’t just there, but hugely important to the health and growth of the industry. Most importantly, over that span it was discovered that they weren’t necessarily print replacements but additive to comic industry revenue streams, and sometimes even inspiration for readers to go and pick up print copies.

    As Comichron‘s John Jackson Miller shared in our five years later piece from later today, “I think the story of the past five years is the fact that digital comics sales, which were feared for the longest time, managed to flourish without seemingly harming print sales at all.”

    He’s exactly right. As I previously mentioned, comic sales as a whole are up dramatically over the past five years in print, and in that same span, comiXology has developed into one of the most successful digital businesses around, passing 200 million digital downloads of comics in September of 2013. It’s a huge sales channel, and something that is benefiting both publishers and creators in huge ways. For example, a creator on a prominent creator-owned book speaking anonymously told me that a third of his book’s revenues comes from digital, which is incredible. As Image publisher Eric Stephenson shares in our five years later piece, “We’re seeing sales on digital comics that, depending on the title, would be healthy print numbers, and instead of fearing digital as some threat to the stability of print comics, we’re seeing that as formats go, it’s a pretty good bedfellow.”

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    That’s great for everyone, and if anything, the past five years have been incredible in proving that print and digital can simply coexist.

    The Private Eye
    But even looking past just that, we’ve seen the advent of digital first publishers that are changing what we know about comic books in some ways. For one, Panel Syndicate blew my mind by stealthily launching “The Private Eye”, a digital only comic from Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente that delivers a story in a different way (in a number of ways, but mostly its very guerrilla nature) than we’ve experienced previously, and with a business model that has rarely been seen in comics, and very fascinating in application.

    Its pay-what-you-want model is not something that can be adapted to any situation, as much of its success is dependent on having hugely popular creators behind it, but the fact that this method has worked and worked well is something that can’t help but be looked on with envy and wonder by many other creators.

    Publishers like Monkeybrain Comics and Thrillbent have seen big success as well delivering digital comics in a more traditional sense, but their creator-owned based models have given many talented creators the avenues to tell the stories they want to tell in ways they wouldn’t have been able to before. I’m personally tremendously thankful for that, as a comic industry without titles like “D4VE”, “High Crimes”, “The Stars Below” and others would be one that is that much poorer creatively.

    Even more traditional web comics have seen huge success, and we now live in a world where something like “The Oatmeal” can not only find an audience but release books and make staggering amounts of money.

    Because of the nature of the internet though, digital comics have become a meritocracy in many ways, proving that quite often you don’t succeed unless you have the quality work to back it up. That’s not something we always see in print comics, and that’s why for a lot of readers and creators, digital comics aren’t just becoming another option, but the preferred one.

    The Rise of Creator-Owned

    “The more people that do creator-owned work, the easier it will be to sell creator-owned work. I’m one guy, I’m out there, I’m doing it, I’m making a living, I’m making a good living. If there were two of me, we’d be selling better. If there were six of me, we’d be selling huge. If there were 20 of me, you know, fans would come. And it can happen. Creator-owned books would be selling better. And Marvel and DC books would be selling better. And Marvel and DC would still be #1 and 2. And everyone would be happier.”

    That’s part of Robert Kirkman’s well-known Kirkman Manifesto, a video in which he shared why he decided to leave Marvel and focus on creator-owned comics. That manifesto was released in July of 2008 and found Kirkman explaining why he believed that, for the good of comics, the industry needed to change and creators needed to look at creator-owned as the pinnacle of comics, not working for Marvel and DC.

    Now, more than five years later, after all the controversy that surrounded that video, Kirkman is looking like he wasn’t just right but also prescient in that this type of move would lead to the industry changing for the better.

    After all, the advent of creator-owned coincided with the industry making a substantial turnaround, reaching levels it hasn’t since the 1990’s. While it wasn’t the exclusive reason for that growth (DC’s seismic relaunch of its entire line and Marvel’s NOW! initiative — complete with double-shipping! were huge parts as well), the development of creator-owned has helped comics expand its reach in audiences it had struggled with in the past and to increase diversification of what you can find at a comic shop.

    Not only that, but it has also led to comics that are, simply put, better.

    Cover to Scalped #60
    Do me a favor before you move on in this article. Think back to the past five years and remember what comics stood out for you. If you’re anything like me, it will be books like “Scalped” and “Saga” and “Locke & Key” and “Chew”, and those are the books that stand out not because they star a character I’ve always enjoyed but because they tell stories I can’t help but love reading. As much as I love Wolverine, the amount of issues that starred him that resonate with me as much as the first issue of “Sex Criminals” can be counted on exactly zero hands.

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    The rise of Image Comics has been a huge part of the creator-owned boom, as well as the aforementioned growth in the overall industry. Even in an industry that is reaching higher revenues than we’ve seen in a very long time, Image has grown from 3.26% of the market share in Multiversity’s first month to just over 11% in March 2014. That’s really, really impressive growth, and if you crunched the numbers, I imagine you’d find that their growth has been a big part of the overall industry’s development over that span.

    Now, you can easily say that Image went from having 18 titles in the Top 300 in May of 2009 to 42 in March of 2014 to show where much of that growth has come from. Naturally, the expansion of Image’s line has helped swell its market share, but the meteoric rise of “The Walking Dead” and the addition of strong sellers like “Saga”, “East of West” and “Sex Criminals” has done an amazing job for both boosting their sales and making creator-owned all the more attractive to your average creator — just like Kirkman would have wanted.

    The Wicked and the Divine #1
    January’s Image Expo showed us that there is even more coming, as we saw new titles from teams like Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham, Scott Snyder and Jock, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie right on the horizon.

    It’s not just Image, of course. Publishers like Dark Horse and Dynamite have expanded their creator-owned lines and others like Top Shelf and Fantagraphics continue to amaze, and as previously mentioned, digital has been huge for the development of creators telling their own stories.

    New avenues like Kickstarter have been a boon as well, with many books being published today simply because they had an idea the public found appealing, so they contributed money to help that creator turn that idea into something real. A book like “God Hates Astronauts” from Ryan Browne really only could happen in today’s industry, as here is the path it followed. It started as a digital comic, but after a highly successful Kickstarter, it ended up not just getting published at Image but being turned into an ongoing series there as well. If anything is more indicative of how comics have changed over this span than Browne’s experience, I can’t think of anything.

    Like with digital comics, though, creator-owned has shown that to succeed, you need to have a story worth telling by creators who know what to do with their ideas. While I’ve noted many prominent creators who have made that move back to creator-owned, teams like Frank Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham or Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore have found great success in that realm by doing things the old fashion way: making stories worth reading.

    That’s the magic of creator-owned, to me. Instead of having creators effectively tell fan fiction of immortal, company-owned characters, you have them telling the stories they want to tell. And isn’t that what we want for comics?

    Given the success the industry has seen over the past five years, and the development of creator-owned within that, it seems to me the answer is a resounding YES.

    The Comics Culture of Tomorrow, Today

    While at times it may not often seem like it, it’s hard to argue that comics culture as a whole is better than it ever has been. After all, isn’t the first step towards change awareness? If anything, 2014 is a time of vast awareness, and it is a time in which bad behavior is analyzed and rebutted as much as possible, and good behavior is rewarded through varying methods.

    Visibility of trouble issues in comics like the treatment of women in comics, the role of artists in comics and the behavior in comic book shops is at an all-time high, and moves are being made to actively push back against those issues.

    It’s a great thing they are, as if anything holds comics back from reaching a larger audience, it’s the (often very real) perception that comics are an insular, unwelcoming community.

    But the growing pains of an industry that’s fastest growing demographic is young women are to be somewhat expected, and thankfully there are many communities both online and off that have proven welcoming and encouraging to these new readers.

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    Captain Marvel #1
    Additionally, the development of social media from a place where you check out that guy or girl you met at the bar last night to a place you have developed a scary level of dependency on has done a lot for that, as comic readers can now connect in places that aren’t just at their comic book shop. Places like Tumblr and Twitter have stoked the flames of growth in fan communities like the Carol Corps and Brimpers. They’ve also allowed readers a previously unprecedented amount of connection with the creators whose work they adore, and it has allowed creators to help expand the reach of their work — especially creator-owned — in low-cost, high reach sorts of ways.

    It makes sense that social media would be a bastion of comic book love. After all, the world as experienced through social media is turning into one almost entirely dependent on visual information, and for a visual-centric medium like comics, the hugely sharable nature of them has made comics infinitely more global than they’ve ever been.

    When you throw the, oh, I don’t know, multi-billion dollar yearly revenues the comic book movie industry has created into the mix and “The Walking Dead” as a socio-cultural epicenter, it’s no surprise that comic culture is at an all-time peak.

    The big question going forward for comic culture is how you turn all of that awareness into lasting change. That’s the big question for anything, but whether you’re talking about equality in fandom and comic creation or the development of actual comic sales, that will be one of the big pursuits in comics today and in the future.

    The Story Going Forward

    Looking back at all of that, it’s hard not to be excited about the past five years in comics. I’ve been accused of being an optimist about comics, but when I see where we’ve come from and where we’re at now I can’t help but be intrigued by what the future holds.

    Even with the many very real reasons to be upset with comics today — comics and its bizarre obsession with rape and the hugely lamented changes at comiXology for two — there are just so many exciting things happening that I find it impossible to not stay positive. After all, when I look forward, I see a brighter tomorrow.

    Comics are developing in exciting ways, with retailers reporting increased fan interest in creator-owned books, Free Comic Book Day becoming an event for everyone, globalization of comics is being encouraged through certain tools, comic conventions growing at a staggering rate, and much, much more. Comics are selling well, they’re better than ever and their acceptance in the general populace as an art form is at an all-time high. It’s a peak time, and everything I see is a portend for even better tidings.

    But they could be better.

    They could sell better. DC Comics could start pulling their weight. We as fans could treat each other better. Their fundamental identity could change from a boys club about superheroes into something truly for everyone.

    We’d all be better if those things happened, and after five years, I can only promise you one thing: Multiversity will be there trying to do what we can to create change. Whether that means writing about subjects that no one wants to talk about or simply pouring our hearts about why you should be reading things like Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn’s “Alex + Ada” (you should be, by the way), we’re going to be doing that each and every day, doing what we can to help comics be better than they were yesterday.

    More than anything, we’re a collective of people writing about the comics we love for the people who love comics, and that’s the standard we try to live up to. We love comics, you guys, and we want to make sure you do too. That hasn’t changed one bit since the day Matt decided he wanted to write about “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (which wasn’t very good by the way), and it won’t change going forward.

    Here’s to another five years, and from the bottom of my heart, thanks for reading.

    //TAGS | Multiversity 101 | Multiversity Turns 5

    David Harper

    David Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).


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