All April long, we'll be highlighting the wonderful world of comics, from interviews with creators and a look at the way the industry works to deep dives with our favorite characters, storylines and controversies. Stay tuned for more throughout the month, and let us know what you think in the comments or on Twitter @blastr!
Five years ago, I began working at Pegasus Books in Bend, Oregon. Opened in 1980 by Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson and now owned by fantasy/horror author Duncan McGeary, it's one of the Pacific Northwest's oldest and most well-stocked comic shops. When I first started, our average customer was 20 to 35 years old and male. Half a decade later, my customer base is easily 50 percent women, and the age range reads like suggestions for a jigsaw puzzle: 8 to 80. Comic sales are as high as they've been since the mega-boom of the '90s, with the vast majority of customers being actual readers and not just buying for perceived collectibility. Comics have had more ups and downs than can be covered here, and they've had a lot of growing up to do to get where they are today.
Not that there haven't always been examples of fantastic content being produced, but several problems have plagued the industry as a whole. Only paying attention to one demographic was the main issue, but thanks to a significant increase in the amount of material being released and a more straightforward shopping experience, superhero comics have become a gateway drug to an array of intoxicating genres, written, penciled, inked, colored and lettered by talented, visionary men and women at the absolute height of their craft.
As we wrap up Comic Book Month on Blastr, here are the 11 greatest strengths of the modern comics scene that explain why if you aren’t reading, there’s never been a better time to start!
No more "Women in Refrigerators"
The term Women in Refrigerators refers to a notorious scene in Green Lantern #54 and was coined by writer Gail Simone as a rallying cry for the disproportionate number of women in comic books killed or victimized to further a male character's story line. Poor representation of women is an unfortunate shortcoming in all media, but comics have been making enormous strides in the last few years to correct this fault. Spider-Gwen is a perfect example, giving readers a new universe to explore where Gwen Stacy, whose death in Amazing Spider-Man #121 kicked off the Silver Age, not only survived, but went on to become every bit the superhero she was once killed to motivate. The current Harley Quinn series has shown real growth for Harley beyond love sick puppy dog or literal punchline of the Joker's abuse, and co-writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti have taken a similar approach to the former Teen Titan Starfire in her own ongoing series. While it's refreshing to see the comics community reclaiming these women as positive role models, it's just as exciting to see the legions of new well-rounded characters coming out of the industry. Rat Queens, Monstress, and Bitch Planet are all series which build multiple female characters with strong motivations and tragic backstories without relying on graphic assault to validate them.
More diverse range of stories, characters, and art than ever before
Following the success of The Walking Dead, Image Comics began taking chances on books like Chew, Phonogram, and Sex Criminals, all of which defy the established look of comics and avoid the kinds of stories mainstream comics often tell, giving a wider audience the opportunity to discover art that appeals to them. It's a lesson Marvel applied to their entire line when they brought in new talent from all over the world, resulting in characters like Kamala Khan, a shape-shifting Muslim American teenager who takes on the mantle of Ms. Marvel, Robbie Reyes, the Hispanic high school student forced to find a balance between caring for his disabled little brother and reaping vengeance as the all new Ghost Rider, and dinosaur riding African American pre-teen genius, Lunella Lafayette. DC Comics injected fresh ideas into their Batman- and Superman-dominated catalog with books like Black Canary and Dr. Fate, and are investing heavily in this strategy with their new Young Animal imprint, led by writer/musician Gerard Way. Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates and Tom King, a former CIA agent ,were recruited to bring their unique perspectives to Marvel's Black Panther and DC's Grayson. Modern Comics' diverse climate is best represented by Harvey, Eisner, and Hugo award-winning space epic Saga, with a mixed race alien couple, their horned and winged daughter, and their teenage, lesbian, babysitter (who is also a ghost) forming the heart of the series. Even all-American Riverdale High School has felt this effect, with the introduction of Archie's new gay classmate Kevin Keller, and the revelation that Jughead is asexual, an identity that is invisible to most popular media.
Fans' voices are heard just the right amount
None of the trends on this list would matter if readers weren’t willing to vote with their wallets, and a larger fan base means a louder one. Spider-Gwen was only ever intended as a one-shot alternate universe story, but an immense response from fans convinced the publisher to take a chance on giving the character her own series, even releasing a slew of Gwen-themed variant covers in celebration. Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr's Portland-influenced Batgirl run inspired intense excitement as soon as it was announced, but when readers took issue with the book's handling of a crossdressing villain, the team was quick to release a genuine apology, writing: "We're indebted to those who stand up to speak out about their perspective on stories like this, their commentary leads to universally better storytelling, from both ourselves and others, and we hope to live up to that standard in the future." When DC announced cancellations for some of their DC You line last year, fans' adamant disapproval resulted in an extended run for Omega Men and a promised return for Prez. It should be noted though, that DC is not afraid to stand by their decisions, or their talent. When the initial New 52 covers were revealed, misguided outrage over Wonder Woman's appearance saw DC strip the heroine of her new costume's fully covered legs in favor of the classic hot pants, but DC took a stand against similar criticisms over the character's fully armored look in the most recent run, supporting creators David and Meredith Finch's vision for the character.
Webcomics have democratized the industry
The benefit of webcomics is twofold: not only can you read an endless selection of comics at this very second for free, but the creators of those strips can also sometimes use the exposure to leap into mainstream comics. Axe Cop, Battlepug, and Hark! A Vagrant are all readable online, but have still managed to land on bookstore shelves in attractive collected editions. Then there are creators like JL8's Yale Stewart, whose Harvey Award-nominated fan comic depicting a grade school Justice League landed him a job writing officially licensed Superman books. The team behind the autobiographical webcomic Johnny Wander recently had their graphic novel Lucky Penny published by Oni Press. And writer and artist John Allison's Bad Machinery began online, but its spin-off, Giant Days, recently became an ongoing series published by Boom! Studios.
Tons of new, independent, and creator-owned companies
A major contributor to the enormous sales figures of the '90s was the interest surrounding new publishers like Image, WildStorm, and Moonstone that challenged the attitude of traditional comics. Today, there are so many publishers all elevating each other through competition, there essentially is no traditional comic book any more, just an ongoing conversation on what comics are and can be. I've said before that Public Relations by Devil's Due/1First Comics was one of the best and boldest books to premier last year, with its lowbrow and high wit stabs at pop culture and fairy tales. And the recently merged publisher has scored another win with Squarriors, a book that places realistically illustrated squirrels in the middle of brutal, Game of Thrones-style politics. AfterShock Comics hit the ground running last year when they launched their premier lineup of books with industry leading creators like Brian Azzarello, Mark Waid, Garth Ennis, Marguerite Bennet, Tim Seeley, and other extremely talented writers and artists. The suspense serial American Monster stands out not only as one of AfterShock's best offerings, but as an ensemble drama better than anything currently on television.
Adaptations are not just a cash grab any more
Comics have a history of being used to market franchises native to other media, but throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Dark Horse Comics elevated the perception of these stories beyond crass commercialization. Snatching up the rights to properties like Alien, Predator, Robocop, Terminator, and Star Wars, Dark Horse set a new precedent by producing world-building material that was not meant to advertise a recent movie, but to continue established franchises long after the films left theaters, a tradition that, two decades later, remains an important draw for comic readers. Titles like Big Trouble in Little China and Edward Scissorhands give us the sequels that never were, while television series survive cancellation in titles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Futurama, and Invader Zim. Video games such as Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, and Dragon Age have also been given expanded stories in comic books. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk's first attempt at writing comics with Fight Club 2 brought a fourth wall-breaking, almost interactive quality to the sequel that the original never quite captured either as a book or a movie. And Marvel has done even more with the Star Wars brand since taking it over from Dark Horse in 2015 by crafting an introspective and psychological look at Anakin Skywalker in Kieron Gillen's Darth Vader series that not only manages to build off of the prequel films, but also gives greater emotional impact to the original trilogy.
Seasonal release schedules make it way easier to start picking up a new series
Something that has kept potential readers from trying out comics in the past are intimidating, long-running series, like many of the flagship superhero books which used to number into the mid-hundreds. Beginning in 2012 with the Marvel NOW! branding, the publisher heavily restructured releases with a schedule more closely resembling seasonal television. In the current model, Marvel gives their books a one- or two-year run before reshuffling the creative teams and relaunching with a brand new #1 issue. This can be thought of like the first episode of a returning show's new season, building off of the story told thus far while providing an ideal place for new readers to jump on. DC seems to be attempting a similar move with their upcoming Rebirth, a great idea if their goal is to bring in curious outsiders without alienating current readers. And with many smaller publishers launching miniseries year round, it's no longer difficult to enter a store for the first time and leave with several comics in the single digits.
Creators over continuity
For those who don't relish scouring back issue bins and wiki pages for every editor's note and factoid, continuity-referencing crossovers can be a turn off. It is possible to please everyone, though, and the perfect example of how sits just behind a bowstring and shimmering purple arrows. When Marvel set Matt Fraction loose on the Avenging Archer, three noticeably different versions of the character existed throughout Marvel's publications in Fraction's Hawkeye, Jonathan Hickman's Avengers, and Nick Spencer's Secret Avengers. By promoting the talent behind these books rather than their place in some massive interwoven tapestry, we got to see several creative voices apply different styles and tones to one character without necessitating any story breaking retcons. And these versions of Clint Barton are more or less congruent if the reader chooses to see them that way, but you don't have to read them all to understand what's happening in one. DC Comics has had a hard time managing its own continuity, maintaining strict rules on what writers can do with major characters and forcing books to overlap in certain ways, but they have given books like Batgirl, Harley Quinn, the Earth One line of graphic novels, and Max Landis's sublime Superman: American Alien the room to tell their stories unencumbered.
All-ages books are back in a big way
Comics may bear the stereotype of being kid's stuff, but the blunt truth is that younger audiences were entirely ignored for years. Parents who sought out comics as a way to get their children interested in reading found that most well known characters were not being utilized in any stories even remotely appropriate for children, and what few kid-oriented comics that did exist were dull and lazy. Today's comics community has fully embraced all ages books, with Steven Universe and Mark Waid's Archie reboot being two of the most asked-about releases every month. Marvel and DC have reinvested stock in young readers with titles like Spidey, a family-friendly series starring a young Peter Parker, and Legend of Wonder Woman, an origin story for the warrior princess that's firmly rooted in fantasy and perfect for fans of the Percy Jackson books. And for the record, all-ages does not mean just for kids; it means fun and appropriate for everyone. Lumberjanes is an undeniably fun adventure series reminiscent of Disney's Gravity Falls, and when issue 17 quietly revealed one of the series main characters as a young trans woman, it was one of the sweetest, most powerful, and deftly written scenes of the entire year.
Trade paperbacks keep classics in print while making newer books affordable
One of the great benefits of reading comics today is that it's so easy to walk into a comic shop or specialty book store and say, "I want this story," and actually find it. Major publishers are doing better than ever at keeping significant stories in print, and highly-demanded but long-out-of-print classics have been made available by opportunistic publishers who've acquired the rights to distribute them. Marvel's hardcover collections of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman's genre-defining Miracleman and Dark Horse's affordable new Complete Elfquest volumes have finally brought some of the most sought-after stories back into stores for the first time in decades. Besides print and digital editions, turnaround time on current titles being collected into the bookshelf-friendly trade paperback format has sped up considerably, and they're often released within a couple of months after the final issue in a book's arc. Compared to the wait between hardcover and paperback releases for novels, or movies and home video, this is an unprecedented speed to get a product into a consumer's hands. Image makes it especially easy to try new series by selling many of their introductory volumes for the attractive price of $9.99.
Superheroes are a small but important part of a much larger industry
Science-fiction, fantasy, western, horror, crime, and romance were all staples of the newsstand during comics' Golden Age, before the emergence of television and the popularity of superheroes diminished their presence. But thanks to the behaviors listed above, and foundational work from indie comics trailblazers like Daniel Clowes and The Hernandez brothers, comics today are the entertainment medium they were always capable of being. Image has contributed some of the decade's best sci-fi literature with books like Manhattan Projects and Paper Girls, as well as crime thrillers like The Beauty and Southern Bastards, and great comedies like The Fix and Sex Criminals. Fables, Locke & Key, and The Sandman are timeless fantasy classics. Stjepan Šejić's Sunstone is a BDSM love story totally removed from the problematic characters and abuses promoted in the Fifty Shades books. Possibly the greatest strength comics have begun to boast is the ability to educate, with historical works like Democracy, Maus, or Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas.