As last weekend's San Diego Comic-Con came to a close, media outlets all asked the big questions: Who will play Dr. Strange? Will Mad Max: Fury Road live up to its trailer? With the press focusing on blockbuster franchises and Marvel's barrage of sequels, there's quiet but fervent talk around what the convention was originally for: comic books.
Depending on whom you ask, the glory days of comics lie anywhere between two decades to a half-century ago. For some it was the '80s, when British authors Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison brought literary heft to titles such as Watchmen and 2000 AD. For others, it was even earlier—the gold and silver ages—when bright tights and pulpy plots were the norm. Or perhaps it was the '90s, with the ironic detachment of everything from Tank Girl to Ghost World. Even for a subculture where past greats are talked about with giddy reverence, there's a growing consensus that the best comics weren't just written 20 or 30 years ago. They're being written now.
100 Percent Creator-Owned
It's impossible to talk about the current state of comics without mentioning the rise of creator-owned comics. Of the publishers who've adopted a creator-owned model, Image is behind many of the industry's most high-profile releases. Founded by seven ex-Marvel mainstays in 1992, Image lets creators—not publishers—own exclusive rights to their work. "There was no interference in what each creator was doing with his own individual title," Image's publisher Eric Stephenson says. "Instead of just doing that on their own, they wanted to open that up and invite other creators to join them." And this has become more important thanks to the rise of comic-based media.
"Nobody likes the notion of comics as an R&D ground for television or videogames," says Kelly Sue DeConnick, a writer whose comic, Pretty Deadly—created with artist Emma Ríos—has been a massive success. "But if something like that is going to happen with it, Emma and I want to be the ones making those decisions."
"Everyone shares ownership, down to the colorist, in my books," says Rick Remender, a comic writer who's published creator-owned graphic novels since 1997's Fear Agent with Dark Horse Comics. "So if a film sells or something goes well they're involved—and that goes for my editor and letterer as well. And that marriage leads to a higher quality product."
While Image had some early success with titles like Spawn and Savage Dragon, the publisher hit its stride this decade. One title in particular, Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, became a cultural juggernaut. "A lot of people forget that zombie comics were not a 'thing' before The Walking Dead," Stephenson says. "That was not a sure success by any stretch. But after Kirkman did it, it kind of snowballed where different people were like, 'Oh that wasn’t a popular thing before, maybe I can try it.'"
Writer Frank J. Barbiere, whose Image title Five Ghosts is a swashbuckling adventure with a magical vibe, agrees. "It’s insane to see how much [the comic book world has] changed for the better, especially for creator-owned and new ideas," he says. "Five or six years ago, a lot of the books, specifically on Image, were selling half to nowhere near what they’re selling now. Shops wouldn’t takes risks. People were not interested."
Remender, too, was surprised that creator-owned books hadn't caught on more quickly. "There's The Hernandez Brothers with Love and Rockets, there's Fantographics, there's Drawn and Quarterly," he says, "I really thought it was going to happen much sooner in the mid '90s with the Vertigo crew [of] Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, and Frank Quitely—what they were doing was quite similar, it was very smart."
Though The Walking Dead might be the most famous creator-owned comic book for non-fans, it's one of many. One of them is Sex Criminals, about a couple with the power to stop time when they orgasm. (They turn criminal when they decide to rob banks.) Though it might sound like a late-night Cinemax show, writer Matt Fraction (who's married to DeConnick) and artist Chip Zdarsky created a funny, poignant, and, yes, sexy story with a premise that would be unthinkable for Marvel or DC.
There's more to today's comics boom than creator-owned titles. Along with Sex Criminals, Fraction writes Marvel's Hawkeye. While most may know Hawkeye as the character Jeremy Renner plays in The Avengers, under Fraction, we learn what he does in his spare time, like dealing with gentrification in Brooklyn. It's a concept that, for a mainstream Marvel tentpole, is as edgy and strange as anything you could find in Sex Criminals. "I think everything about that book is an outlier and a dark horse," Fraction says. "It is the definition of 'lightning in a bottle' and if I knew how or why it worked, I would’ve done it years ago. I think it’s just one of those 'right place right time' kind of things."
There seems to be a whole lot of 'right place right time' happening in comics—both inside and outside the Marvel and DC Universes. Fraction says the worlds of Marvel and DC and the worlds of creator-owned comics are like apples and oranges. "If you’re an apple grower, you’re definitely not in Florida," he says of writers playing to their readers. "There are all types of dumb metaphors you can make. Maybe the apple sellers caught some of the orange market with Hawkeye?"
In contrast to Marvel and DC, Image tapped into an outside-the-box approach. "I think the main thing is that we want people to do what they want to do. Yesterday, I was in meetings all day and talked to a lot of prospective writers and artists," Stephenson says. "At some point in every conversation someone asked, 'What are you guys looking for right now?' My response back to them, each and every time, is 'I’m looking for the book that you have been dying to do.'”
Among her many contributions to contemporary comics, Kelly Sue DeConnick took Ms. Marvel and made her into Captain Marvel, challenging long-running gender stereotypes and pumping life into a little-known franchise. But it's with Pretty Deadly where DeConnick did something truly surprising. Throughout the metaphysical Western/horror following the daughter of Death, readers are treated to some of the most surreal imagery and poetic storytelling the medium has seen. Though Image's Pretty Deadly is closest to her heart, DeConnick approaches her work for Marvel the same. "I don’t treat my Image books any differently than I treat even work for hire," she says. "I write all my books like I own them."
"And it’s very seldom that Marvel tells me 'No,'" she continues. "They want you to pitch crazy ideas to them. It’s comics. We love crazy ideas."
Stephenson echoes DeConnick's notion that publishers are really just open to any idea. When it comes to a book like John Layman's Chew, another one of Image's bestsellers, ideas have gone next-level. "When John Layman pitched that, he was like, 'Hey I’ve got this book about a detective. When he eats stuff he gets visions about whatever happens as he’s eating in a world where chicken has been outlawed.'" says Stephenson. "There’s no way I could’ve asked for that. So yeah, that’s what links everything together."
The same goes for Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga, a Romeo and Juliet-style space opera that looks to become one of the best-reviewed comic of all time. "The thing that makes Saga so special isn’t the sci-fi space opera, but it’s the human part of it, the characters," Stephenson says. "It’s this family where two parents are raising a child in an intergalactic war, which again sounds like typical sci-fi stuff. But, if you’ve read the book from there with the characters you’d realize that this is very personal stuff. It’s a lot of pieces of Brian in here where you’re getting his outlook on life and raising a child. "
Dudes All Weekend Long
As comics have become more personal, the voices and characters have become more varied. In a speech during this year's annual Image Expo—essentially Image Comics' State of the Union—Stephenson specifically pointed out that the creator-owned comics model has allowed previously unheard or lesser-represented voices to come to the forefront. "For decades, the comics industry has been viewed as a boys club, but that’s changing," he says. "The reason that’s changing is because now, more than ever, there are comics that actually appeal to a readership beyond the audience our industry has spent so much time servicing since comics’ resurgence in the 1960s. " Stephenson elaborates, "I was telling someone recently that if you go to a comic book convention now, there are a lot more women and a lot more variety in terms of the faces you see. When I first started to go in the early '90s, there were just a lot of men. It’s not like that anymore. Slowly, and piece-by-piece, comics have been created that appeal to more than just men."
Just looking at the array of quality comics out right now, and you can see that Stephenson is clearly right—not that there still isn't a ways to go for gender equality in the comics world. Saga, Pretty Deadly, Rocket Girl, and many more of the best-reviewed books right now are written or drawn by women. And books like Sex Criminals and Rat Queens, though not created by women, feature distinctly feminist female protagonists drawn without the typical outrageous proportions that defined most comic book heroines until recently. "When I stared going to San Diego Comic-Con in 1993 it was a very male-centric boutique hobby," says Remender. "But over the last 20 years, we've been able to make diverse-enough books that we've drawn in a large female readership, which is terrific." As Stephenson points out, it's a positive trend that's been slowly gaining momentum for years. "It’s not just us, but there are plenty of other people who have done it," says Stephenson. "DC, for all their faults, had Sandman by Neil Gaiman. That was a book that had a very large audience of non-male readers. Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore kind of carried that along, and what Matt and Chip are doing with Sex Criminals appeals to a wide range of readers."
Remender also points to other subcultures, such as punk, that've become newly-converted comic book fans. "People who were fans of Juxtapoz magazine in the '90s or who are fans of Robert Williams paintings—the underground has grown and we're seeing a lot more diversity in the fan-base." I tell Fraction that my girlfriend has been hooked on Sex Criminals since the first issue, and suggest that, to me, it seems like there's a whole new readership that that was just searching for something that appealed to them. "Just because you want to disregard a metric doesn’t invalidate that metric," says Fraction. "For a few years it was received wisdom in the direct market that kids and women don’t read comics. Right? No, they just don’t want to read these comics."
A Comic Store in Your Hand
Aside from the creativity that creator-owned comics has afforded writers and artists in recent years, there's also the fact that more people have access to comic books than ever. Digital distribution through ComiXology (now owned by Amazon) has allowed readers access to virtually all major comic book titles on their tablets, smartphones, and computers. "The thing that’s been happening in comics a little more than five years at this point, there was always this fear in the comic market, especially comic book stores, that digital comics are going to put us out of business," says Stephenson. "That hasn’t happened. What has happened is that we have seen tremendous growth for us since we ran along ComiXology, which we started doing in 2009. We’ve seen an increase in digital sales every year since 2009, but we’ve also seen increase in our print sales. That says to me that if you give people a wider range of options, in terms of how to get your content, you’re going to sell more content across the board."
Creators are also feeling positive about digital distribution, to a large extent. "Everyone who has a smartphone or mobile device has a full comic store in their hand," says Fraction. "It’s great, there's no downside for me. I grew up and lived in many different cities that had no comic shops so I know what a pain in the ass it was. Now, all you need is Internet. I don’t think the paper medium is going away, nor do I think brick-and-mortar stores are going away. I love that people can get comics wherever they are." Barbiere, who actually worked at ComiXology for about a year before leaving to write full-time, also believes it's about getting comics in the hands of people who have never read them before. "One of the big problems in comics is the fact that a lot of people would never go to a comic book shop—and there’s still a lot of stigma there," he says. "The fact that you can buy your books online and get them immediately is a huge convenience."
Digital also has the potential to tap into new markets. "It's a news stand on everyone's iPad across the world," Remender says, noting that comic book fans planet-wide have accesses to new comics immediately as they are translated. DeConnick, though, acknowledges that comic shops are still nervous about the rise of digital. "The digital numbers are growing exponentially—literally exponentially. So, we’ll see," she says. "I don’t think this is a business you want to get into if you want to get rich, you know? So they’re in a touchy position, and some of them feel they’re hurt by digital. I don’t think that’s the case, I think people who come into it through digital will eventually find their way to a comic shop. We just have to be ready for them and ready to make that connection easy. Community is a huge part of how people enjoy their comics. People find community online a lot these days. So you have an iPhone in your pocket–you also have a digital comic book shop in your pocket too."
A Brass Ring
Regardless of what happens to brick and mortar comic shops, everyone seems to agree that the consumer is winning. But if you happen to be an old-school reader looking to get back in the game or a novice looking read his or her first book, you still need an entry point. "Anyone looking to get into comics for the first time should stop by a comic book store and leave all your expectations at the door," says Fraction. "The difference between comics now and 15 years ago is that they are far more diverse. People would say, 'Read Sandman,' but there are so many now to choose from it depends on what they’re into. What’s your favorite show? What’s the last book you read? I bet we can find a comic based on your other case." For his part, Barbiere is quick to shout out Remender and Jonathan Hickman, author of East of West and The Manhattan Projects. "Rick Remender's books at Image, particularly, have been wonderful. He’s been doing a book called Black Science, and a book called Deadly Class, those books I look forward to every month," says Barbiere. "I really like John Hickman’s work, he’s another guy that came up after Image, but he does a lot at Marvel. I like his Avengers. I was able to write a stand-alone story in that universe, and it was a huge honor to be a part of that."
DeConnick remembers getting into comics herself for the first time, citing among others Marvel's Cosmic line, books that had a connection to feminism, and '70s horror books. But in particular she points to Vertigo, a DC imprint once known for its edgier and more adult-leaning fare who also published creator-owned works. "For those of us of a certain generation, Vertigo is a brass ring. I really wanted to have my name on its own Vertigo book. And I think Vertigo is still around and it’s still great, but Vertigo… it’s got a lot of company now. They were the only ones putting out books like that, and they were head and shoulders above the rest." Remender remembers the frustration of the early days of creator-owned comics compared to today. "The sea-change that's happened now is a bit of a revelation," he says. "We're not only able to do the kinds of books that are very personal and the kinds of projects that we want, but we are able to sell copies of them. People have been grinding it out and pouring themselves into creator-owned work for decades, but it's only now that we're seeing an audience reacting to it."
If there's one simple place to give new readers an idea of what the current comics landscape has to offer, it may be this year's Eisner Awards nominees. Since the first awards show in 1988, the The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards has become what many in the comics industry refer to as the comic book Oscars. Held during Comic-Con each year, this year's winners were announced over the weekend. Image, in keeping with buzz around creator-owned comics, had been nominated for a total 17 awards, while other creator-owned publishers such as Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, and Dark Horse also boasted strong showings. Image would ultimately end up taking home four awards, including a Best Continuing Series win for Saga and a Best New Series award for Sex Criminals. Meanwhile, today's aspiring comic book writers may have a new gauntlet to reach for.
Nathan Reese is a News Editor at Complex. If you want to talk comics with him, you can find him on Twitter.