2010 in Review
by Bryan Munn
Time once again for a look back over the past year in Canadian comics. In many ways, I think 2010 will be remembered as a year in which the newest generation of cartoonists really came to the fore and asserted themselves on the national and international stage. Whether it was the spectacular debut and seeming ubiquity of Michael DeForge, continued strong work from the likes of James Stokoe, Jillian Tamaki, and Pascal Girard (among many others), or the overhwhelming success of Bryan Lee O’Malley as a multimedia behemoth, this cohort of young 20- and 30-something artists really dominated the linkblogging here at Sequential.
In terms of important news stories, the ongoing recession which continues to batter the comics industry in the U.S. seems to have been less of a story here in Canada. Just as the Canadian banking and real estate markets have weathered the crisis better here, so retail has been generally stronger. The gang at the Shuster Awards seem to have a better finger on the pulse of the world of comic shops, where for every story of a store in crisis there is another balancing story of a store opening or thriving with a varied clientele. Book sales in general are reportedly down 3.98% over 2009, but there is really no reliable way to look at sales of comics and graphic novels throughout the sprawling Canadian marketplace, including online sales, independent bookstores, Chapters, and the 250-odd comic book shops scattered across the country. Diamond Comics Distributors, responsible for the vast majority of comic sales through local shops, has indicated that North American sales are down 3.5% over 2009, with no differentiation of the Canadian market. Not a huge drop, but not exactly double-digit growth, either. That number translates into something like $430 million in the Direct Market alone, which translates to basically some nice pocket money for Warners and Disney, and the trickle-down side-effect of continued steady employment and healthy paycheques for many Canadian freelance artists. But booksales are on a longterm decline in general, and comic sellers, after a few pre-crash years of growth and mainstream acceptance euphoria, seem skittish and conservative, if still passionate.
Tangential to the theme of the economy and sales is another big 2010 story, the advent of multiple digital platforms and strategies from most of the major comics publishers and retailers. Sequential hasn’t really covered these innovations to the extent that the U.S.-focused blogs and news sources have, as it is hard to separate the hype from the actual facts about usage, cost, sales, etc. Plus, we don’t really have that much interest in how you can access the latest Spider-Man comic here (well, we do and we don’t, if you understand me). Maybe when Louis Riel is available as a hologram brainscan?
Other big news stories? I’ll mention three that stand out from what Sequential reported on over the last 12 months. First, on the macro-scale, the continued growth in the convention trade, both as an outlet for comics sales on an individual cartoonist level and in mass-market promotional terms. I think of Dan Clowes’ recent comments about the changes to San Diego and cons in general as emblematic of the mainstreaming of superhero and comic fan culture. In short, comic conventions are big news and popular. Nothing illustrates this better than our coverage of the two major (and mirror image) Toronto shows, TCAF and FanExpo. TCAF the big art comics love-in and FanExpo the massive multimedia explosion. 10s of thousands of people attended these events and with the exception of the overcrowding and shut-down during the peak hours of FanExpo, it is hard not to see this as a vindication of the power of comics fan culture.
In publishing news, the big story was the arrival of Koyama Press on the scene. The boutique Toronto press fronted by publisher/art patron Anne Koyama, interviewed by Sequential’s David Hains here, is a welcome addition to the uncrowded Canadian comics scene with a handful of weird and wonderful art books and comics, including the afore-mentioned DeForge and Tin Can Forest’s Baba Yaga and The Wolf.
In terms of individual artists, Jason Kieffer seems to have suffered (enjoyed?) the most controversy, with his faux-guidebook to Toronto characters, real and imagined, which came under fire from critics for both tone and subject.
Which brings us to:
1. Newsmaker of the Year: Bryan Lee O’Malley
As mentioned above, Bryan Lee O’Malley and his Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels, as well as complimentary movie, soundtrack, and videogame were the 900-pound gorilla of Canadian comics in 2010. From humble beginnings (I remember Brad Mackay announcing that Scott Pilgrim had been optioned as a film way back in 2005, when O’Malley won the Best Emerging Talent trophy at the first Wright Awards), the Scott Pilgrim franchise has grown into a worldwide brand, with passionate fans and incredible book sales testament to the power of a unique cartooning talent.
The year began with O’Malley riding high on the success of the first five volumes of his series, with fans eagerly anticipating the final volume (Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour) and the imminent arrival of the celluloid adaption of the series, Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Modern film promotion being what it is, the hype for the film, and the targeting of a perceived audience, coupled with O’Malley’s strong internet presence and social networking skills, generated a level of interest that reached a fever pitch early on and didn’t really let up until the dvd of the movie dropped in the Fall. A bestseller on not only the Sequential Canadian bestseller list but on almost any other comics and even general book list you can find, the Scott Pilgrim books, as well as O’Malley’s 2003 debut GN, Lost at Sea, dominated sales all year, challenging not only the traditional superhero publishers, but also newer upstarts such as Jeff Smith’s Bone and The Walking Dead franchises for chart supremacy. Scott Pilgrim Volume 6 was the number 4 book on Diamond’s year end chart, with Volumes 1 and 2 taking the 6 and 10 spots, respectively, and a similar story can be told by consulting the Amazon and Chapters lists, ad infinitum. Eventually celebrating over one million copies of the series in print –a true publishing success story– O’Malley and Oni Press have proven Scott Pilgrim the little comic that could. And how it could. The final book dropped amid such huge anticipation that a Harry Potter-style frenzy took hold. A deftly-engineered midnight release was executed in bookstores and comic shops across North America, with a giant street party sponsored by former O’Malley employer The Beguiling taking place at the epicentre in Toronto. A Sequential roundtable panel added its voice to the many who sang the praises of the book, boosting the hype even higher in anticipation of the movie which premiered scant days later and also experienced a triumphant unveiling at San Diego Comicon. Although well-reviewed and the subject of seemingly perpetual, unabated hype, the final film version was something of a box-office disappointment. The final tally, a still mind-boggling $30 million in ticket sales, recouped barely half the film’s reported $60 million cost, and earning less than other 2010 comics-related movies like Marmaduke ($33 million), Kick-Ass ($48 million), and Diary of a Wimpy kid ($64 million), according to BoxOfficeMojo. The film still made many year-end “best of” lists and looks destined to be something of a (cult) classic among comics fans and cineastes alike.
All told, it was really a Scott Pilgrim year, with Bryan Lee O’Malley entering that rarefied club of comics creators/filmmakers, with book store cred and a loyal fanbase, attached to mainstream film properties that make him practically a household name. An internet/social media phenomenon and inspirational artist with an accessible public persona seemingly tailor-made for the way we consume pop culture today, O’Malley and his hero entertained and inspired an entire generation of readers and viewers in 2010.
2. Awards
Our annual listing of links to the winners of Canadian comics awards. This year, two graphic novels received notice from major (non-comics) book awards: Leslie Fairfield’s Tyranny was nominated for a GG and Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles (Freehand Books) was nominated for The Writer’s Trust prize.
National Newspaper Award
Bedeis Causa
The Joe Shuster Awards
Doug Wright Awards
Prix Bedelys
Expozine Prize
3. Bestsellers
The Sequential Bestseller List is a semi-weekly attempt at giving you a snapshot of what is popular in bookstores across the country. Using numbers from bookmanager.com, the list ranks Canadian comics in terms of sales through independent bookstores and some comics shops. Outside of Amazon and Chapters ranks or Diamond sales (which don’t separate Canadian from U.S. sales), these rankings are the only publicly accessible indicators of graphic novel and comics sales we have. This past year, the list featured lots of manga, and what is shaping up to be a perennial conglomeration of strong sellers, including new Canadian classics like the Scott Pilgrim series, Skim, and all-time longevity champ Louis Riel, which all took turns at the top of the list. (label: bestsellers)
4. Passages
(tag: obituaries)
Sadly, several comics professionals left us during the past year. We end our overview of 2010 with a final look back at these passages:
Richard Langlois, 1945-2010: Quebec teacher and pioneering comics scholar
Jan Kamienski, 1923-2010: World War II Hero and Political Cartoonist
Barry Blair, 1959-2010: Controversial Cartoonist and Publisher