Paul O'Brien takes his customary look back over the year that was, when the big story was big stories at the Big Two, the risk-taking of recent years was abandoned, and Diamond set about some housekeeping.
19 December 2005

Ah, Christmas. A time for peace on earth, goodwill to all men, and space-filling Year in Review columns. And as this is the last Article 10 of 2005, it pretty much mandates some form of look back at the year.

As regular readers will recall, a few months back I declared this to be one of the most boring years I could recollect. Nothing has happened in the intervening months to change that view. I can honestly say that, when it comes to comics, I shall remember 2005 primarily for being the one between 2004 and 2006.

The last time I wrote such a column, it provoked all manner of outraged grumblings from certain segments of fandom, essentially on the basis that no reasonable person could possibly be bored with comics when there were so many indie books or manga titles that they could be reading. I have no particular desire to reignite that debate. But I suppose the point is worth touching on in order to pre-empt the annual objections that I haven't said nearly enough to recognise the joys of Japanese comics aimed at teenage girls, or the chin-stroking importance of Fantagraphics' reprint programme.

Do not think for a second that I dismiss the value of such products. No doubt the target audience appreciates them greatly. In their small way, they contribute to the sum total of human happiness. Good for them.

But at the end of the day, I'm simply not that interested in reading them. Like the vast majority of comics readers, I am not a fan of comics as an abstract proposition. I am a fan of certain types of comics, and sufficiently open-minded to give others a look. Some people appear to self-identify as fans of the medium of comics in and of itself, predisposing them to hunt out and try new types of comics. Nothing wrong with that. But it's the comics equivalent of being a film buff. Such people are a minority of the cinema audience, and in any remotely healthy market, they will be a minority of the comic book audience.

For the rest of us, it doesn't work that way. I self-identify as a fan of certain genres of comics. I am predisposed to hunt out and try new products within that area. I recognise the likely quality of many products outside that sphere, but it doesn't follow in the slightest that I should feel inclined to read them.

'I shall remember 2005 primarily for being the one between 2004 and 2006.' Manga, falling outside my existing sphere of interest, does not magically become of interest to me simply because it's a comic. Instead, it joins the long queue of other activities battling for my leisure time, behind the novels I haven't got around to reading, the DVDs I haven't got around to watching, the TV shows I keep meaning to check out, the games I haven't finished yet, and the alcohol I plan to consume in sociable company.

This is the way the majority of people think, which is self-evident when you consider the equivalent thought processes in other media. ("You didn't enjoy any of this year's action films? Well, why don't you go and see a heart-rending documentary about the Holocaust instead? Come on, it's all moving pictures.") This is why there's relatively little drift between the different audiences. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with being a fan of the medium in its own right, but it is manifestly absurd to regard that as the standard attitude that any reasonable reader ought to have.

Nonetheless, manifest absurdity has not stopped this attitude from becoming received wisdom in of the more insular sections of fandom, who spend so much time talking to one another and so little listening to anyone else that they've convinced themselves they represent the default enlightened human being. The rest of us stopped listening long ago.

In the meantime, I'll stick to the direct market for the purposes of this column. And what a dreary year it's had.

This was, after all, the year in which DC felt able to publish a comic called COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS with no irony whatsoever. The INFINITE CRISIS crossover sprawled across most of the DC line before the series proper had even started. Over at Marvel, HOUSE OF M did the same thing. And there's more to come, with stunts and 'event' storylines scheduled way into 2006. Meanwhile, variant covers abound. After a decade of relative progress, and in particular after the relatively ambitious mainstream comics Marvel was producing under Bill Jemas, both companies seem to have slid all the way back to the speculator boom drivel of the mid-1990s - only without the redeeming virtue of high sales.

From a critical standpoint, neither story is any good. But judging the stories on their own terms, DC undoubtedly had the more successful year. INFINITE CRISIS, like IDENTITY CRISIS before it, entertained and captured the imagination of the core DC audience, who continue to support the product with enthusiasm. Existing storylines are being trampled in service of the crossover, but since most readers seem more interested in the crossover, that hasn't become a problem yet.

'Both companies have slid back to speculator boom drivel, but without the high sales.' Marvel, on the other hand, have been rather half-hearted about the whole thing. They'll produce a four-month line-spanning crossover, sure, but the plot won't actually cross over, so all the satellite titles are pretty much meaningless. And the core series itself will be six issues of people talking to one another before a big event comes out of nowhere in the penultimate issue.

To some extent it's admirable that Marvel are trying to keep titles self-contained in this context, but ultimately it just doesn't work. In an ideal world, there wouldn't be any mega-crossovers at all. But if they must exist, they might as well be done right - and DC, by throwing themselves into the full implications of such a storyline and allowing the ramifications to be seen across their line, are at least following through on what they promise. Over at Marvel, it's apparently beneath them to insist that writers stop using Nick Fury in their stories even though he was kicked out of SHIELD a year ago. If this is the sort of story they want to do, then they're going to have to bite the bullet and do it properly. Otherwise, they're going to take another hammering in 2006 by only going halfway.

Quality issues aside, the other significance of this trend is that both publishers have backed off from the attempts in recent years to produce hybrid books crossing superheroes with other genres. At one point this was seen as a possible avenue for expansion, but even the most critically acclaimed examples like SLEEPER struggled to find anyone to buy them.

After a string of failed experiments, Marvel and DC are probably right to acknowledge that the audience for these hybrid books simply wasn't there. It was a nice try that produced some good comics, but in the long run it just didn't work. HARD TIME continues to cling on as the last remnant of this genre, but it's unlikely we'll hear much more of it after its current season wraps up in 2006.

Instead, Marvel has started experimenting with the digest format, apparently hoping that books like RUNAWAYS might have a better stab at appealing to the manga audience. This is presumably why Marvel continues to publish unlikely and ultra-low-selling miniseries like SPELLBINDERS and LIVEWIRES, since god knows they can't justify their existence in the direct market alone. Neither of the big American publishers has yet made much of an impact with the new manga audience, but perhaps it's a wise move to try something closer to their traditional strengths rather than risk being seen as second-rate manga clones.

'Publishers have backed off from attempts to create superhero hybrid books.' Of course, strictly speaking the big American publishers in the manga sector are the producers of homegrown manga. After first seeming to offer a wonderful new alternative for indie creators, they now seem to be embroiling themselves in a whole new creator rights debate. This could be one to watch in 2006, as the manga publishers reach the stage where they're so established that they get to be the bad guy corporation abusing their creators, instead of the plucky upstart pioneer. But I digress.

Meanwhile, the direct market has become a lot tougher for the minor players. It takes a massive amount of hype for even Marvel or DC to launch a new title effectively these days. Even with that support, they couldn't get anyone to buy books like ARANA. If you can't muster that level of hype, launching a new line of books is unlikely to turn out well. Of course, the launch of Alias Comics was a disaster in many ways, most of them self-inflicted, but they also faced a massive uphill struggle from the start.

Against that background, Diamond has started taking a hatchet to the catalogue, clearing out the low-selling books which it just isn't worth their while to carry. Details aside, it's hard to argue that Diamond has a duty to support books that are proven loss-makers, or to assist publishers whose sales levels make them little more than glorified hobbyists. It'll be interesting to see in 2006 whether this really makes much difference to the unreadable, bloated Previews catalogue and cuts it down to a manageable size. If it does, it may yet be good news for the smaller publishers who remain - at least there won't be quite so much clutter to get lost in.

Others, like Speakeasy and FINDER, are moving in the direction of electronic publishing - no doubt a very sensible move if your sales are that low. It may be true that relatively few people have made money from books that started off as web comics. But I'd wager that the odds are still a damn sight better than starting off as a micro-selling direct market pamphlet.

Web comics look set to come back into prominence in 2006, after a few years on the back burner. Early attempts were a bit erratic, like many things from the dot-com era when the Internet was new and shiny. Some, in the guise of being 'enhanced comics', were really just crap animations. Others amounted to printed pages awkwardly reproduced on the screen. Perhaps this time people will finally start drawing for the screen in the first place and using the medium effectively. In any event, I expect to see a new, and more balanced, wave of web comics emerge over the next year if people can prove they can get a bigger audience that way.

Overall, though, 2005 was one of the less memorable years for comics. No major new movements, no drastic new developments, and a generally backwards-sliding outlook dominating the direct market. And the plan for 2006 boils down to more of the same.

Hopefully, things won't work out that way.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

All contents