The Creative Comic Book Revival
Published: Monday, May 6, 2013
Updated: Monday, May 6, 2013 16:05
Comic books haven’t exactly been in the best shape over the past decade or so.
In spite of the fact that America has more or less decided that movies based on comic books are the thing to write home about (Marvel’s “The Avengers” is one of the highest-grossing films of all time, not to mention the myriad of successful, related properties), very little of that money has bled back into the pages those characters sprang from.
DC has had some success with its universe-wide reboot, which saw each of its major titles restarted at issue one, as well as sweeping changes made to the fiction as a whole. Meanwhile, Marvel jumped a bit less enthusiastically on the relaunch bandwagon with NOW!, an initiative which also renumbered many of their titles.
However, that’s only a bandage on the comic industry’s bleeding wound. But why, exactly, are comics doing so poorly just a few years after the great comic boom of the 90s?
To understand the situation, you have to understand where it all started.
Comic books were once wildly popular and successful, and ranged across countless topics outside of superheroes, including crime, drama, horror, fantasy and science fiction. That colorfulness came to an end, however, after a mid-20th century explosion of conservatism.
Governments began questioning the content of comic books, which they viewed as “children’s entertainment,” and the books should therefore be subject to strict regulations. Basically, the government threatened to start censoring comic books at the federal level if the industry didn’t start doing it themselves (a very similar thing happened in the 80s and 90s to the video game industry, around the time the ESRB was formed).
So, the comics industry started the Comics Code Authority, which basically censored or banned most “mature” content in comic books, conveniently sidestepping the unconstitutional practice of prior restraint because it wasn’t technically run by the government. Suddenly, the “violent” and “overly sexual” (by the standards of the time) content of science fiction, fantasy and horror was no longer viable, and comic creators were forced to pool all of their resources into the less indecent superhero comics. Thus, the Silver Age of comics was born.
In the 80s and 90s, comics finally broke free of that sort of restraint, however, and started to go dark—very dark. That’s what led to the last, great comic book boom spearheaded by creators like Frank Miller (“The Dark Knight Returns”) and Todd McFarlane (“Spawn”). Unfortunately, superheroes had become the status quo, and so those dark stories were still informally limited to that genre.
Now, however, we’re finally seeing a breakaway from the thinking that says all comics have to be about masked vigilantes; not just because artists and writers have grown tired of it, but because they desperately want to own their own characters, which is only possible if they don’t write about the Spider-Men and Wonder Women of the world.
Without the restraint of the superhero genre, and not having to worry about story decisions that might make old men in nice suits very angry, comic creators are producing some of the best content in the more-than-a-century since the medium gained popularity.
Books like “MIND MGMT,” “Saga,” “The Manhattan Projects,” “Sweet Tooth,” “American Vampire,” “Locke and Key” and countless others are showing that this medium isn’t just a venue for adolescent tropes. Comics are a fusion of art and prose, and can now explore some of the most thought-provoking themes available in any medium because of how relatively cheaply and quickly they can be made.
Comic books don’t have to worry about TV and film budgets and censorship, or returning massive investments. They can be whatever they want and explore things that no other medium would dare, because there is a hunger in the creative forces behind them to do something more.
And now, finally, they have the guts, the resources, the partners and the opportunity to make good on it. Now is an incredibly important time to be a fan of comics.