2011: The Year That Comics Died
by BK Munn
(Or, The year that comics died, were born again, mutated, limped along in zombie form, and continued dying at the same majestic pace.)
Some notes on the year that was from the vantage-point here at the blog about Canadian comics culture.
1. What is comics, anyway?
For the last 3 months the following books have sat on my desk, waiting to be reviewed on Sequential: Melamine Car Bomb by Mark Connery, OMAC #1-4 by Dan Didio and Keith Giffen, The Klondike by Zach Worton, and Drag Bandits by Colleen Frakes and Betsey Swardlick. So, what do a punk collection of street art collected by doodle-king Marc Bell, a Jack Kirby homage penned by DC Comics publisher Dan Didio and José Muñoz-plagiarist Keith Giffen, a historical graphic novel released by A-List publisher Drawn and Quarterly, and a crowd-funded comic book about transvestite highwaymen edited by indie-cartoonist Box Brown have in common? Fucked if I know.
This is the quandary faced by anyone attempting to get a handle on the world of North American comics, circa 2011. What constitutes comics? Where are comics going and how can one humble little news blog cover the whole thing? It’s a fragmented world, to say the least. Print publishing, including books, newspaper comic strips, and traditional comic books, seems to be on its last legs. A new wave of digital and web comics are heralded as the future and a comics design and art aesthetic dominate our visual culture. What we used to think of as comics seems almost dead and buried, and yet comics in their various aspects have never been more ubiquitous, ambitious, and overwhelmingly beautiful and emotionally powerful (not to mention, financially successful). How do we reconcile the comics industry with “comics”?
In this year of revolution, war, reaction, and financial collapse, comics have been our mirror, our diversion, our comfort, and our despair. Cartoonists have taken to the streets, enlisted in the Canadian debacle in Afghanistan, were bombed, arrested, and fired. Cartoonists made us cry. But outside of very few publications, these events were not reflected in the comics of the past year. Instead we got, for the most part, teen-oriented manga, bestselling zombie comics, superhero reboots, golden age reprints, overhyped non-fiction memoirs, literary adaptations, and young adult fantasies.
2. The Year in Sequential
The highlight of 2011 for the Sequential blog was the Toronto Comics Arts Festival and the publication of the third annual print edition of the Sequential magazine. For TCAF we provided extensive coverage, including a round-table overview, while the print magazine included tons of previews and actual comics highlighting many of the attendees of the festival.
As for the regular blog, Sequential featured a number of interviews representing a diverse cross-section of the comics landscape, including talks with Eugene Zhilinsky and Kimberley Whitchurch, Sarafin, Shannon Campbell of the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, Rebecca Kraatz, Jesse Jacobs, Benjamin Rivers, John Martz, Joe Sacco, Joan Steacy, Mark Laliberte, Dylan Horrocks, and Nick Maandag. We also offered reviews of books by Maurice Vellekoop and various Koyama Press titles, Lorenzo Mattotti, David Lester, Joe Ollmann, George Walker, Keith Jones, and Steve Ditko. Sequential ranked the Canadian Comics of the Decade, and reported on future books by Emily Carroll, Bryan Lee O’Malley, and Jillian and Mariko Tamaki.
In other news this year, the anti-censorship battle continued with the CLLDF incorporating and protecting a manga importer, and the Canadian government stopping the import of books to TCAF.
In publishing, the Marvel Boycott began and spread to Canada, and the company cancelled perennial sad-sack Canadian punching bag Alpha Flight. Jay Stephens ended his Oh, Brother! comic strip, the Xeric grants ended, Udon phased out pamphlet publishing, New Reliable Press ceased operations, and the Comics Code finally died.
In convention news, besides our TCAF roundup, we covered Fan Expo and a number of other events, including Wizard dropping its Winnipeg con, and a new Vancouver event announced its intentions. Venerable comics retailer Silver Snail moved and upstart Little Island opened.
The comics journalism world was rocked by the news of cartoonist and publisher Dylan Williams death, and the illness and hiatus of beloved comics newshound and critic Tom Spurgeon. Wizard Magazine imploded, and The Comics Journal received a new transfusion of talent.
3. “The Comics Industry”: Culture of Fear
I’ve been doing this year end review thing for Sequential since 2006 and the theme every year since then has been how comics, and especially the tiny world of Canadian comics, have been growing from strength to strength, becoming more popular, and becoming more accepted by what remains of mainstream culture. The evidence is always anecdotal, based mostly on industry hype and the generally blinkered view of someone (me) who spends his spare time trolling Google news for tidbits about graphic novels publishing and blog reviews. Even so, there is no denying that, despite some major successes and crossovers in the larger public consciousness, 2011 was also a year of diminished expectations. The new permanent recession economy means that our (that is “the comic book industry’s”) highs will be less high and successes will be less successful. Despite the early Christmas that comic book shops received in the form of a temporary return to 1995-era levels of sales and excitement (not to mention the 1995-era eye- and mind-bruising stories and art typical of the Image-dominated superhero comics of that time) with DC’s “New 52” initiative, comics sales and the audience in general seems to have been shrinking for years and the trend continued in 2011. We just have to look at the numbers that comics distributor Diamond posts about sales to see how small the traditional “Direct Sales” comic shop market is, with a basic audience of little over 100,000 people in North America for even the bestselling $3 monthly comic book. This is not a mass market but a boutique industry. And that goes quadruple for Canada.
Of course, what I like to think of Canadian comics culture is much larger, even if you don’t include the audience for superheroes, and factoring in the readership for digital and webcomics, people who buy graphic novels and manga in bookstores and take them out from libraries, and those who attend comics and pop culture conventions, the world of comics is much larger than the world of the comic shop and superhero fandom. Larger for certain, but is it 10 times larger?
In regards to the actual economics of the Direct Market in Canada, I can only reiterate what I noted in last year’s report. Within the general downward decline, anecdotal evidence suggests a sort of homeostasis within the comic shop economy. There hasn’t been an avalanche of store closures, but few new stores opened and current owners aren’t exactly buying luxury Batmobiles. Ditto for the larger book market. We haven’t had something like a Borders bankruptcy, but a major Canadian book distributor (H.B. Fenn) did go under, and traditional small bookstores are closing left and right. The print book seems imperiled, yet everyone is still talking about reading and the business of digital.
Indeed, the industry seems to be contracting in very specific ways, with layoffs, book cancellations, and an eye for the corporate bottom line becoming the new norm; recessionary business strategies tailor-made for the tightly-squeezed boutique publishing/R&D organelles that DC and Marvel constitute in the larger Warner-Disney constellations, and within the larger “content producing” industries in general. Most comic creators, as Marvel illustrator Dale Eaglesham noted last week, are working in a culture of fear, wherein it seems the next digital announcement or quarterly report could signal the end of a way of life that has existed for a small number of artists and writers churning out a very specialized form of genre entertainment off and on for 60 years.
In terms of specific publishing enterprises in Canada, nothing really seismic was recorded on the Sequential Richter scale this year; the same handful of English-language publishers (Conundrum, Drawn and Quarterly, Koyama Press) lead the pack in terms of locally-produced comics, graphic novels and related publications, with a few small presses, vanity presses, self-publishers and even large-ish dilettante international concerns shepherding the occasional graphic memoir or young adult fiction to bookstores. And the same is true for Quebec. Sure, many new young cartoonists came out with impressive work and many older lions fought hard to maintain primacy, but the tiny game board on which this artistic to and fro took place remained largely unchanged.
Which brings me to my next category:
4. Newsmaker of the Year: Drawn & Quarterly
Over the past 20 years, Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly has evolved from a one-man show responsible for a marginal anthology to a major book publisher with an international roster of artists in its catalog and an industry dominance that puts it in the forefront of comics publishing worldwide and dwarfs at the same time as it inspires its competition locally in Canada. The dream team of founder Chris Oliveros, co-publisher and publicist Peggy Burns, ex-Highwater Books publisher Tom Devlin, and a ragtag cohort of editors, designers, translators, booksellers, and dedicated interns make the modern D+Q a beehive of comics greatness and news-iness.
It’s a trifle unfair, you might mutter, to award a publisher and not one of its individual authors the newsmaker trophy, but when I really sat down to think about it, looking over the past twelve months of comics coverage on Sequential, around the web, in print and other media, no other entity really dominated the consciousness of the Canadian comics imagi-nation. From the announcement of a new Seth book that kicked off the new year to the publisher’s recent crowing about six out of its twenty-four 2011 titles (one-quarter of its output) ending up on the New York Times graphic novel bestseller list, D+Q had a banner year in terms of publicity, corresponding sales, and public engagement. Sure, any one of those bestsellers deserves special consideration this year, and any one of their creators would make for a fascinating profile here, but whether it’s the mega crossover success of Kate Beaton, Dan Clowes’s canonization, or Chester Brown’s massive signing lines despite a controversial book about prostitution and Libertarian candidacy, Drawn and Quarterly’s quality control and tireless, Napoleonic-quality publicity efforts are the common thread behind these successes, almost above and beyond the skills and personalities of individual artists. Even tangential stories this year, like Seth’s Harbourfront prize win or the announcement of Conundrum Press signing Michel Rabagliati, are in some part D+Q stories. Seth, Rabagliati, and Conundrum had good years, sure, but D+Q had a better one. The Canada Reads horse race? Jeff Lemire got booted off the island but still sold books; Chester Brown and D+Q got a boost for Louis Riel, without it making it to the island at all.
Certainly, D+Q isn’t exactly leading the charge to publish a ton of hot new talents –people like Emily Carroll, Jonathan Dalton, Michael DeForge, Patrick McEown, and Ethan Rilly are all being published elsewhere– but they still found a place in their schedule for a solid debut by Zach Worton and a successful sophomore effort from Pascal Girard. As well, D+Q’s stable were essentially the stars at TCAF and other big events, and D+Q did keep up with some trends, keeping a finger in every pie whether it was manga translation (a potential book of the year with Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths), classic strip reissues (Doug Wright), webcomics (Kate Beaton), and digital (Chester Brown, initially).
With no close rivals, the publisher looks positioned to continue its dominance of hearts and minds in the years to come, continuing with longterm reprint projects like the John Stanley Library, Moomin, Gasoline Alley, and Nipper, and expanding its catalog to include major U.S. talent like Gilbert Hernandez, at the same time as it maintains its gold standard in terms of Canadian graphic novel production.
Every year we can get some sort of sense of the best comics of the previous year by looking at the various awards handed out in Canadian comics in 2011. And the winners were:
The Joe Shuster Awards
National Newspaper Award for Editorial Cartooning
Prix Bedeis Causa
Doug Wright Awards
As always, we end our year in review by remembering those who have left us over the previous year, including cartoonists, writers, and cultural critics.
Alvin Schwartz (1916-2011) creator of Bizarro Superman
Norm Muffit (1942-2011) political cartoonist for northern newspapers
Elwy Yost (1925-2011) tv host, film critic, nostalgia pioneer, and comic strip character
Gordon Reid (1936-2011) Calgary political cartoonist
Bob Monks (1928-2011) Windsor historian and cartoonist
Charlie Bell (1916-2011) Regina policart
Clement Sauvé (1977-2011) young Montreal comics illustrator
John Gallant (1917-2011), co-author, Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea
(thanks to David Hains, Robert Pincombe, Salgood Sam, and Dalton Sharp for their contributions to Sequential throughout 2011!)