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Diamond’s 2013 Stats Show Comics Sales Growing

The Walking Dead #115 was the top-selling comic book of 2013.

Despite all the turmoil, 2013 turned out to be a fantastic year for the comics industry.

Diamond Comics Distributors just posted its year-end stats, revealing comic book sales were up more than 10 percent over 2012 and graphic novels up 6.5 percent. That’s an overall sales boost of just over 9 percent.

Both unit sales and dollar sales charts showed Marvel and DC collectively accounting for about two-thirds of the business, followed in dollar share by Image Comics, IDW, Dark Horse, Dynamite, Boom!, Eaglemoss, Valiant and Avatar Press.

The Walking Dead #115 turned out to be the top-selling single issue of the year — fueled no doubt by the ten connecting variant covers celebrating the series’ 10th anniversary— followed by DC relaunches Justice League of America #1 and Superman Unchained #1. Marvel dominated the rest of the top ten, with Guardians of the Galaxy #1, Superior Spider-Man #1, Infinity #1, X-Men #1, Age of Ultron #1 and Uncanny X-Men #1. Rounding out the list was Superman Unchained #2.

Graphic novels were dominated by Image, with volumes of Saga and Walking Dead taking the top six spots. Marvel’s sole title on the list was Hawkeye, Vol. 1, while Batman scored two for DC with The Court of Owls and The Killing Joke Special Edition.

The charts also show why publishers are constantly rebooting and relaunching titles: Those tactics sell lots of comics. So I expect we’ll see a lot more of that.

On the plus side, it’s great to see almost all the major publishers posting gains and also that each has forged for itself a strong identity in the market through publishing quality work. I can think of books I like from pretty much every one of the top publishers, which is saying something.

It’s also interesting to see Diamond list its account tally for comic book specialty shops at more than 3,500. That’s up from what I remember it being in the not-too-distant past, and an increase in this number likely has a lot to do with market growth considering these sales tallied here are sales to retailers, not sell-through numbers. I’ve long thought that more comics shops were important for the industry just to get the damn things out there and in front of people who’d buy comics and like them if they could actually see them for sale somewhere.

Byrne’s The High Ways veers off course

John Byrne is at his best when he’s doing science fiction. Take Next Men as the ultimate example. That series followed the old-school rules of science fiction, by setting its premise and following through as realistically as possible. Byrne’s affection for classic Star Trek (i.e., the good stuff, not the recent reboot flicks from Jar Jar Abrams) and its attempts very early on to be the TV version of classic science fiction literature is obvious.

A lot of that drives The High Ways (IDW, $3.99 each) a four-issue sci-fi series that should be better than it is. The story begins with rookie Eddie Wallace joining the crew of the space freighter Carol Anne, along with first mate Marilyn Jones and Captain Jack Cagney. After Wallace is appropriately initiated into space life (always wear your suit!) the Carol Anne heads out to pick up some cargo on Europa. That’s where the mystery begins, with a strange creature spotted outside the science base there and no cargo for Cagney to pick up.

What follows is an odd story with a bunch of twists and turns that end up feeling very random instead of satisfyingly twisty. This is the kind of story that attempts to avoid the common sci-fi criticism of scientific inaccuracy by being as scientifically realistic as possible. And it achieves that aspect of it, but in doing so it fails to give its characters any real personality or tell a story with sufficient emotion or reason for the reader to fully engage in this world.

Byrne’s art remains consistent and I still think no one draws spaceship-style tech stuff as well as he does. The storytelling is very solid and Byrne’s style has evolved over the years into something looser and more expressive than his classic 1970s and 1980s work on X-Men, Fantastic Four and Superman. It’s quite a nice change if you can just let go of expecting his work to have that same clean and pristine quality and just enjoy it for what it is, and what it is is some damn fine drawing.

I would check out a sequel to The High Ways — I think there is something in the approach and style. A more engaging story could build this up into something really cool.

Braga’s TNG miniseries is great Star Trek comfort food


I’m a long-time Star Trek junkie. The original TV series became an instant favorite when I was 6 years old and it was shown each afternoon after school in syndication. Star Trek: The Next Generation was an immediate favorite of mine when it came on the air in 1987 — at a time when there was almost no sci-fi, fantasy or genre fare to be found anywhere on TV — and it remains one of my favorites.

Star Trek: The Next Generation — Hive #1-4 (IDW, $3.99 each) boasts as its key selling point a story by Brannon Braga, who was a writer and eventual executive producer on TNG and many of its theatrical and television followups. The key influence here is the 1996 feature film Star Trek: First Contact, which Braga wrote with Ronald D. Moore, and is generally regarded as the best by far of the four TNG movies.

This series begins in the 29th century, by which time the Borg have fully assimilated the entire galaxy and Capt. Jean-Luc Picard reigns with the Borg Queen as Locutus. Realizing the Borg have hit a dead-end, he concocts a time-travel plot to alter history. Back in the 24th century, the Borg seek the help of the Federation to stop the alien Voldranaii, which they claim they cannot assimilate and which poses an equal threat to both civilizations. 
That set-up is enough to get me on board for all four issues, especially when the script by Terry Matalas and Travis Fichett, and the art by Joe Corroney convey the classic feel of the show so well. As has often been the case with Star Trek comics, the storytelling style of the TV show comes off as a bit slow and talky. But it retains the spirit of Star Trek and the heyday of the DC Star Trek comics (the best ever done for the franchise, I think) from the 1980s and 1990s enough to make me think there’s still a future for TNG outside some horrid J.J. Abrams-style reboot.

Breaking a 26-year weekly comics buying habit

It’s now been six weeks — or maybe eight; I don’t remember — since I last walked into a comics shop and bought a stack of new comics. And it may be a long time, if not ever, before I do so again. If it sticks, it would mark the end of a 26-year habit that has brought me tremendous joy but whose time may have finally passed on.

I could trot out a bunch of reasons for this change that have nothing to do with the comics themselves — namely, that there’s precious little time for me to read comics and the money spent on them is better used elsewhere with a 10-month-old in the house.

But the real reason is that comics — by which I mean mostly mainstream, superhero comics — have over time gotten so, well, small, that I have finally lost interest.

But let’s back up for a second.

I began buying and reading comics because I loved the cool stories they told. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was nowhere near enough sci-fi, fantasy and superhero material around to satisfy my appetite for it. I had loved animated superhero cartoons as a kid, graduating to stuff like Star Trek, Space: 1999 and, of course, Star Wars, which arrived when I was the perfect age — 7 going on 8 — to love it completely. And I wanted more. By the time I was a teenager, the sci-fi and superhero content boom inspired largely by the success of Star Wars had begun to fade out. There was almost no sci-fi on TV, and the few attempts that were made in the genre like V or the imported Max Headroom were short-lived or terrible or both. Star Wars was, apparently, done after about 1986, with the Marvel comic canceled and no other new content to come for about the next five years. Star Trek was still around with a new movie every other year, but that just wasn’t enough; The Next Generation was still a couple years way. I liked science-fiction novels like the Dune series and Childhood’s End, but comics’ visual nature and the shared universes they offered were much more interesting. 

And I ate it up, which was easy to do because comics were cheap. Taking $20 into the comics shop meant you could walk out with 10 new issues and maybe eight recent back issues. The collecting aspect was part of the fun — every new store might have the issues you’re looking for at the price you can afford — as was the simple pleasure of looking at art. Classic comic book art is a wonderful thing to look at and admire, and the old-style work that was done with traditional pencils and ink had a lot of personality. An easy way to start an argument at the comics shop was to ask people who was the better artist: John Byrne or George Perez. It was the same with writers — you could after a while tell who wrote what without looking at the credits. And there was plenty of new material to explore, beyond just Marvel or DC. When you got bored with The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League, there was American Flagg! or Watchmen or Jon Sable: Freelance or The Adventures of Luther Arkwright or Concrete or Love and Rockets to move on to.

All of which made comics seem like an evolving and innovative art form that was vastly underappreciated by larger culture. In a word, comics were big — they were immersive, delivered old fashioned action thrills and were often much smarter than anything on TV or playing at the local cineplex. Comics felt like they were ahead of the curve — that everyone would find this stuff as great and fascinating as we readers did if only they gave it a chance. I think fans’ desire to see their favorite comics on the big screen came from a real need to prove that comics were worthy of attention, that they were ahead of the curve.

Comics kind of got that wish with the speculator boom. The 1990s really were the best of times and the worst of times. There were a lot of astonishingly bad comics that sold zillions of copies, but also some of the very best comics ever came along during that decade. Even the increasingly cynicism of Marvel and DC was masked by the fact that there still was some spark in their characters and in their books — something that excited readers whether they were kids who got turned on to the medium by the X-Men cartoon series or longtime collectors.

The industry of comics has, like every other aspect of showbiz and publishing, had to struggle with the changing landscape of making it work in the 21st century. If you had told me 20 years ago how easy it was to publish, promote and distribute comics in the digital age, I would have expected the doors of creativity to swing wide open and deliver a new Golden Age of super cool stuff. But instead, we have come to an industry that’s dominated by monopolies or near-monopolies. Its increasingly corporate nature has slowly but surely wrung the innovation and fun out of mainstream comics almost entirely. Even more sad is the creative decay, the decline in quality of comics and their near-universal slavish devotion to imitating other media or less-interesting elements of comics’ own past. I swear, I hope to never again read another superhero comic that uses first-person narration in captions. It was different when Claremont did it back in that 1982 Wolverine series, but it’s been run into the ground so much since then that by now it’s gone all the way through the planet and is halfway to Mars.

Marvel and DC were always conservative, always very corporate on the business end of things. But the last successful new character (i.e., one proven capable of headlining a solo series and not being derived from another character) created at either company that I can recall in the last 20 or so years is Deadpool. The only breakout characters — ones known to some degree in the greater population — from the entire industry are indie creations like Hellboy, Bone and Spawn.

The Big Two are not alone. The overall trend in entertainment has increasingly been over the past 20 years in general and the past 10 in particular toward exploiting established properties over any kind of investment in the new. It’s telling to look at such companies as Warner Bros. Animation and Hasbro Studios and seeing them admit they have no interest in creating new properties because it’s much easier and more reliable from a business standpoint to continually exploit and re-exploit the library.

The same must be true at DC and Marvel, though they avoid saying it. Given both companies’ history with creators from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to Jack Kirby, no experienced comics creator with a great idea is going to give it to either company under traditional work for hire terms. And even if there is some kind of co-ownership agreement worked out where the creator gets a share or say in the use of their creation, it’s never going to be worth a corporation’s time or money to deal with the restrictions such a relationship would impose on them when they have so many other properties they own outright and can do with whatever they choose whenever they choose to do so.

The same issue has plagued pretty much all of entertainment, except maybe for TV, where the demand for content is high enough that new ideas can still get a shot. But look at the big studios’ biggest releases, the ones they pour tons of money into in the hopes that the payoff will be flush enough to keep everything going. They’re all mined from other sources — adapted or recycled from elsewhere. Even book publishing has gotten in on the act with silly ideas like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I find it fascinating that so many properties are tied up now that public domain titles have become popular fodder, like the upcoming John Carter movie and competing feature projects based on Snow White and Frank L. Baum’s Oz books.

The problem with this approach is that universes that do not grow are by definition stagnating. Adding new characters, new stories, new series is essential to maintaining healthy long-term interest, and that simply does not happen anymore at either publisher. When you think back to the most interesting eras for either publisher, it was when they were doing new things. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and others were creating the Marvel Universe, each new series was a major event. Each new storyline promised the potential of a new character as cool as Silver Surfer or Darkseid. It’s true for other publishers, like Valiant Comics, which for me evoked similar excitement during its earliest days when Jim Shooter was writing everything and sometimes even drawing the books. It was a cohesive universe that was growing organically and it was exciting to watch — until Shooter was forced out and a more conventional, short-term vision rather quickly began to unravel what had been done to that point.

On the indie side of comics, there are some bright spots. I still think some of the most exciting books of the 1980s and 1990s to discover were unique indie books, like Bone, Strangers in Paradise, Cerebus, From Hell and Stray Bullets. Dark Horse remains what it was back then — a unique mix of decent licensed comics and some really cool, high-quality creator owned comics like Concrete, Hellboy, Sin City and John Byrne’s Next Men. Dark Horse has always taken chances, and I continue to appreciate that, even though a lot of the newer original content they’ve come up with leaves me a bit cold. Image still publishes some of the coolest comics these days and are welcome as one of the few places left that is open to creator-owned comics.

The biggest problem with most indie comics — and with creators new to the comics field — is they seem to consider comics like a first draft of a movie proposal more than a medium of its own. When I was on staff at Variety, I got tons of horrible comics published by wannabe filmmakers who thought that, since comics were hot, all it took to get their script bought and made was to turn it into a comic first. There also were established filmmakers who sought to forestall studio intervention on the creative front by establishing their stories as comics that studios could not change without risking a Comic-Con backlash. In short, with a few exceptions, I haven’t found too many indie books that deliver the kinds of thrills and alternative takes on adventure stories, superheroes, whatever that rivals the best indie work of the past. Add to that the inability of most of today’s creators to get a book out on a regular schedule, with consistent writing and artwork, and even the most promising series can arrive stillborn (I’m looking at you, Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer).

So it is that the comics business has dwindled to a de facto single distributor in Diamond, a near duopoly on the publisher’s end with Marvel and DC splitting more than three-quarters of direct market sales between them, and a stagnant creative field that seems happier treading water and imitating sub-par movies or TV shows than coming up with anything really new. And the constant reboots and alternate universes, from Ultimates to All-Star to the New 52 just became wearying. Why can’t we move past origin stories anymore?

And it finally got to me.

After more than a quarter century, I found reading the last big stack of Marvel and DC books I brought home at tremendous expense to be the last thing I wanted to do. Trying to read the last few of them was incredibly difficult — the art was detailed but unclear, the scripting was clever but not informative, and the stories inched along at so slow a pace, with so little happening on any given page or in any given issue, that nothing registered as being remotely interesting. Six weeks later, or however long it’s been, I not only do not miss my weekly comics shop visit but I feel somewhat relieved. I no longer have to keep track of what I have and don’t have, what the big crossover of the moment is, or how much it’s going to cost and whether I can still afford it.

None of which means I stopped reading comics or have no more interest in comics. I’ve been focusing on artwork of late, and have found myself interested in the recent bounty of classic comic strip reprints. I’m well into the first volume of IDW’s The Complete Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff, and digging the hell out of it. I also have a bunch of vintage graphic novels I plan to catch up on, including digging into the rest of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and an Al Williamson Flash Gordon volume I picked up a while back but never got around to reading. I also want to dig into the Williamson and Archie Goodwin strip Secret Agent X-9, and I  still have a few holes in my run of 1960s X-Men comics to fill.

There’s a lot today’s comics could learn from guys like Caniff and how well he used the weekly and daily formats. In many ways, the classic comic strip could foretell the way forward for comics, as all media have been moving toward shorter, more intense bursts of content. As we’ve gone from newspapers to magazines to web home pages to blogs to Facebook and now to the 140-character limit of Twitter, short and sweet chunks of story seems like the natural way for comics to go. A comic book series used to deliver 12 stories a year; and even when there was a multipart story, each part was still complete enough in itself to be interesting. Now, with four-, five- and six-part stories the norm, you get only maybe three complete stories a year. I think is part of the reason the established comics franchises are split into so many books — you need four or five series at that storytelling pace to keep up. I would love for decompression to be declared officially over and for comics to go back to being, well, comics.

If they do that, I might at some point come back. That could happen next week, next month, next year or never. But until then, I’ll be taking my comics interest into a past that’s largely new to me and promises to be a lot more fun.

Off the shelf: The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures — Deluxe Edition

The Rocketeer is something of a legendary comic book, one that I’ve heard lots about but only had a chance to read small pieces of before now. If you’re unfamiliar with this comic, here’s the basics: The Rocketeer was a throwback to the pulpy, serial adventures of the 1930s written and drawn with incredible love and attention to detail by Dave Stevens. It may have seemed like just another indie comic when it hit the stands in 1981, maybe even like just another knock off of the successful movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which made hard-luck heroes of that era very popular.

But there’s this character, Betty, the girlfriend of the somewhat hapless hero Cliff Secord. Based on Betty Page, who at the time was largely forgotten except to a few folks like Stevens, the character focused Stevens’ incredible talent and helped make this a comic few who read it would ever forget.

Looking at this new edition, which is the first time all Stevens’ Rocketeer stories were collected in one volume and features some amazing new coloring from Laura Martin, it lives up to its reputation as one of the finest examples of popular comic book artwork. It’s also a blast to read — Stevens is mostly known as an immaculate artist, but this wouldn’t be the classic it is if he also couldn’t work up a good story to hang it on.

Reading this book is like going back in time in more ways than one. Not only is it a great tribute to the adventures of the 1930s and the pinup girl sensation of the 1950s, it’s also an example of state of the art comics in the 1980s — the last decade before digital technology began to make its presence felt. Every panel in this collection conveys both the sense that a perfectionist is at work, but also the warm feeling of artwork that was created by hand. (It’s also interesting to note the help Stevens had on this project, with art assists from some other luminaries including Michael William Kaluta, Jaime Hernandez and Art Adams, among others.)

Stevens died in 2008 at the age of 52 from leukemia. And this book can’t help but be a major part of his legacy. (For the rest, pick up Brush With Passion, an autobiography Stevens unfortunately didn’t live to finish, but which shows the number of amazing projects he worked on from preparing presentation art for Steven Spielberg on Raiders to storyboarding John Landis’ famous video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He also was instrumental in later finding the real Betty Page and became a friend to her in her senior years.) It’s unfinished as a story — it just kind of ends with the second major adventure and Stevens never got around to giving the story a resolution.

The Rocketeer, of course, had a life beyond comics in the form of the 1991 feature film from Disney. While it wasn’t a box office smash, it was well-received by critics and fans of the comic. It also was an early big role for Jennifer Connelly, who played “Jenny” — changed from Betty, but still pretty close. And it should be a movie worth revisiting as its director, Joe Johnston, is set to helm another movie adaptation of a classic comic book hero in Marvel’s upcoming The First Avenger: Captain America.

The Deluxe Edition (IDW Publishing, $75) also includes an extensive bonus section, featuring rare artwork, paintings, thumbnails, scripts and sketches from the series. It is, in and of itself, a convincing argument for the validity of comic art as a thing of beauty and value. There’s a “regular” edition of this book out that costs about $30, which is a standard-size hardcover without a lot of the extras. But if you’re at all curious on this one, do yourself a favor and splurge on the Deluxe Edition if you can. It’s definitely worth it.

Off the shelf: Captain Canuck, Vol. 2

Growing up in Canada as a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I always knew about Captain Canuck. When I was in Grade 3 or 4, a friend of mine used to have a yellow T-shirt with the artwork from the first issue’s cover on it that was very cool and the envy of the rest of the boys at Grandview Heights Elementary School. Given my interest in Canadiana as well as comics, you’d think I’d be an expert on this comic.

But the truth is, I have never read a page of Captain Canuck until now. And I have to say thanks to IDW Publishing for putting this one back into print, even though I missed that they’d published it all up until now.

I’m starting with Vol. 2, which just came out, and collects the Captain Canuck Summer Special and issues 11-14. These are from, according to John Bell in Invaders from the North, “the period that saw Captain Canuck become of the finest superhero comics ever published.” And while that claim may be a bit over the top, there’s no arguing that these are some damn fine superhero comics.

The best stuff is in issues 11-13, a three-parter called “Chariots of Fire” (this came out before the 1981 Oscar winning movie of the same name). This story has a dual plot, one in which Canada has, in the 1990s, become a world superpower due to the value of its natural resources and leads the world’s efforts to repel an alien invasion. Meanwhile, Captain Canuck, who exposed the invasion and was set to lead it, stumbles back in time about a thousand years in an encounter with one of the aliens. The modern world believes the good Captain dead and simultaneously mourns him while using his death to rally the world to the impossible cause of defeating the aliens.

Perhaps my favorite part is the segment with Captain Canuck stuck in the past, where he meets up with a tribe of Micmac natives and helps them fend off their own invasion from the Vikings. This art and writing in this sequence is a tribute to the work of Halifax-born Hal Foster on the classic Prince Valiant comic strip and is extremely well done in both regards.

These stories were written by Richard Comely, who created and drew the first Captain Canuck comics in the mid-1970s, but by this point has focused on his talents as a scripter. The art is by George Freeman and Claude St. Aubin, and is really a joy to look at because, when it shines, it’s pure comic book cartooning at its finest.

And there is something Canadian about it — and the only reason I can come up with for this is the similarity in Freeman’s style to the early work of another Canadian artist of the era, John Byrne. And I’m talking about Byrne even pre-Marvel — Doomsday +1 and the other Charlton stuff he did at the time.

The production value on this book also is great. I don’t know if original films were available, but the art is very crisp and clean and the colors evoke the feel of those 1970s comics while also looking modern.

This beauty package, well worth the $24.99, and I’m definitely on the hunt for Vol. 1. All I need is this book, some jelly doughnuts from Tim Horton’s, a two-four of Labatt’s Blue and an Oilers-Flames game on TV and it’ll be like 1981 all over again.

Cooke’s Hunter is a stylish, hard-core crime tale

Things don’t get much  tougher on the crime fiction front than The Hunter (IDW Publishing, $24.99, 2009), Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of the classic Richard Stark novel introducing the iconic criminal character Parker. This is easily the most hard-boiled crime comic to come along since Frank Miller founded Sin City in the early 1990s.

Set in 1962, this is a tale of a truly unrepentant criminal who is out for revenge on the woman and men who double-crossed him and set him up for dead. And it’s that setting — 1962 Manhattan — that makes Cooke the ideal match for this project. His style, which evokes classic animation, captures the style of the era in a way few other artists could. It’s abstract at times, vividly concrete at others and always powerfully focused on its story.

Done in a lovely two-color format, the narrative does run out of steam just a bit by the end, partly because Parker never really becomes anything more than a one-dimensional vehicle for the kind of mayhem that must have really stood out in 1962 but is a bit more common now. That small quibble aside, it’s a very stylish and highly entertaining thriller that will surely wow hard-core fans and casual readers alike.

Comic du jour: FX #1 (March 2008)

This is a bit of a throwback to the days of simpler comic book superheroes that I picked up recently in a bargain bin, mostly out of curiosity to see what John Byrne’s drawing. The story by Wayne Osbourne tells the tale of Tom Talbot, a kid about 10 to 12 years old who mysteriously acquires a superpower that lets him pretend up any effect he wants. Taking the superhero name FX, he and his pal Jack test out the powers against a renegade gorilla.

This story began as a commission Osborne wrote and paid Byrne to draw, with the result getting picked up by IDW. This very much falls into the fairly rigid interpretation held by Byrne and the fans at his forum of “what superhero comics should be” and undeniably does evoke the kinds of stories comics told back in the days when the only place to get them was the spinner rack and every issue was somebody’s first. Byrne’s art remains clear and strong, even as it reflects the somewhat more cartoony nature of his recent work.

At the same time, FX is too much of a throwback — too simple and simplistic – to make much of a mark in today’s market. Just because this kind of tale worked once, doesn’t mean it still resonates with the same force, especially as kids are increasingly exposed to more choices and more sophisticated fare than ever before. The result is little more than a nice bit of well-constructed nostalgia that has all the relevance of a “Leave it to Beaver” revival.

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