The comic industry is going through a time of change. The dominance of the Big Four is under threat, both from those publishers' failings and from the smaller and often more vibrant companies chipping away at them. Nick Locking assesses the landscape.
27 September 2002

You know what sucks?

Stability. Nothing is worse than something that never changes. There's a saying that goes something along the lines of, 'When something changes, then comes the death of what it was before'. I'm paraphrasing heavily.

If that's true - and obviously it is, I'm just saying this in the aid of rhetoric - I could add the caveat that when something doesn't change, it exists in a sort of horrific grey bored shadow of existence. Things have to change, or nothing is interesting.

So hooray for comics, basically. Because at the moment we're sure seeing some change, all right. For the first time in a few years there's no definite oligopoly in place - no 'Big Four' (DC, Marvel, Image and Dark Horse). Ok, there's still a Big Two - Marvel and DC, or AOLC as Marvel wittily calls them - but - and this is the important bit - the top-selling book in the industry right now isn't from the Big Two.

TRANSFORMERS - for yea, it is so - is published by Dreamwave, a publisher whom very few people had even heard of a year ago. Take that, established market structure! Alright, TRANSFORMERS is a dirty, dirty nostalgia book, but really, what's the difference between TRANSFORMERS and top-selling Big Two book THE ULTIMATES in terms of creator-ownership and artistic integrity? Not much.

Railing against dirty retreads of HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE is fine - if a little like shooting fish in a barrel - but be aware that all THE ULTIMATES is - however brilliant it is, and I do believe it's brilliant - is a dirty retread of THE AVENGERS. Even Mark Millar admits he's essentially writing a nostalgia book.

So what's happened to the Big Four?

'The top-selling book in the industry isn't from the Big Two.' Marvel has been excelling of late, establishing its position as the best publisher of superhero and similar titles in the medium. In fact, I honestly believe that Marvel couldn't be doing any better. It's reigning in all the best talent, tearing up the sales charts, and putting out some real top quality books with a brazen PR policy that has everyone talking about it, for good or ill, all the time.

Kevin Smith on SPIDER-MAN. Millar and Hitch on THE ULTIMATES. The Ultimate range itself. Marvel doesn't look like it's going to budge from the top publisher spot for at least a few years. While the recent U-Decide stunt is playing with knives - I don't think anyone was fooled, and MARVILLE has been met with... less than enthusiasm - it could still result in more Peter David CAPTAIN MARVEL TPBs, so it's got my support.

DC is a different story. It's been flagging, bumbling ineffectively in the face of Marvel's sudden turn of tactical genius, and has been basically failing to put out much worth looking at, but it seems to be poised to bounce back.

Ok, DC still seems to have monkeys in charge of its TPB reprinting division (Alan Moore SWAMP THING, dammit! More ABC softcovers! WAR STORY! HITMAN!), but they're starting to get some decent books. LUCIFER is brilliant, and Brian Vaughan's Y: THE LAST MAN is the first Vertigo launch in a long time I've been really interested in.

Add in the new Eye Of The Storm imprint (a sub-sub-imprint of DC sub-imprint Wildstorm), with it's flock of mature readers superhero titles (ok, not ideal, but it's a start) and things are looking up for the distinguished competition. Or, at least, are looking like they've got the potential to look up.

Image has gone through major changes. What started out as an artist's publisher, churning out nothing but crap superhero titles largely ripped off from whatever the artists used to work on at Marvel and DC, has turned into a bastion of creator-ownership and quality.

'DC is bumbling in the face of Marvel's sudden turn of tactical genius.' If anyone told me five years ago that Image would be putting out Eric Shanower's excellent Greek history comic, AGE OF BRONZE, I'd have laughed in their face. If they told me they'd be publishing Garth Ennis' superpowered prostitute comedy, THE PRO, I'd probably be more likely to believe, but it's still a far cry from what I'd expect. I'm hard-pressed to think of any actual straight superhero titles coming out from Image any more.

Dark Horse has faltered. Time was, it produced a lot of creator-owned work by popular creators - gritty noir like SIN CITY or sci-fi/adventure stuff like HELLBOY or GRENDEL. In addition to that, it's generally regarded as the licensed property king, with the ALIENS, TERMINATOR and PREDATOR franchises firmly in its possession, as well as the perennial STAR WARS license.

But I can't remember the last time I was tempted to buy an ALIENS, TERMINATOR or PREDATOR title (and mock if you will, but some of the early ALIENS mini-series' were fantastic). Dark Horse still has the odd success like P Craig Russell's mind-blowingly brilliant adaptation of RING OF THE NIBELUNG, but for the most part Dark Horse has slipped back. If I was forced to choose the Big Four of today's market, I honestly don't think Dark Horse would have a place in it.

So who would? There's Oni, of course. Oni's output has been a perennial favourite of Ninth Art's Shipping Forecast, and saw the site commend Oni as the number one publisher of last year. In terms of the amount of books it puts out and in terms of the sheer quality of those book - hell, based on the publication of QUEEN AND COUNTRY alone - I'd be personally inclined to give Oni that coveted Fourth Spot.

Pending some nebulous technicalities, Crossgen has reportedly just qualified for Diamond's Premier Publishers list, meaning it will go to the front of Previews rather than sitting in the back with the other smaller publishers, which certainly makes it a contender for the spot. Crossgen may yet surprise us all with its success - the company is actively working to form deals outside of comics, breaking free of the dank and limited confines of the industry as we know it.

'If choosing the Big Four today, I don't think Dark Horse would be in it.' Only time will tell, though, and Oni and Crossgen are not the only contenders for the Big Table. There are a mass of publishers out there, any one of whom could grow into the next behemoth of comic publishing.

There's Dreamwave, of course. Honestly though, without TRANSFORMERS, Dreamwave doesn't exactly dominate the sales chart. It remains to be seen whether Dreamwave will be able to turn the TRANSFORMERS-reading audience into a Dreamwave-reading audience, or whether they'll fade away and disappear, if and when the TRANSFORMERS license dries up and goes away.

(That's unlikely to happen any time soon, though. The TRANSFORMERS fan community is a huge and dedicated beast, and I think at least one monthly TRANSFORMERS comic will still be economically viable long after HE-MAN, THUNDERCATS and BATTLE OF THE PLANETS have fallen from grace).

Avatar Press is also coming up. Until fairly recently, Avatar didn't put out much that didn't have a half-naked demoness with a sword on the cover (with optional fully-naked variant), but of late, Avatar seems to be trying to cross off all the names on the Most Popular Writers list. Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis have all put out work through Avatar recently, and there aren't many publishers that can make that boast. Well, apart from DC.

Those aren't the only smaller publishers around, and naturally the landscape can change dramatically in a very short time. The industry appears to be in a state of flux at the moment in regards to its second-tier publishers. And no matter what happens, I for one would much rather see the industry in this sort of position, with everyone jostling for a place in the lead and striving to compete, than with an established hierarchy of publishers locked into place, with no room for existing publishers to grow or for new publishers to emerge.

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