Comics’ Final Crisis?

Just back from my occasional jaunt down to central London to pick up my comics from Gosh!. I have to admit I’m making these trips with ever decreasing levels of enthusiasm these days, for several reasons.

Firstly, there is the fact that I generally feel out of touch with the market these days. This problem started about 18 months ago when the UK’s comics trade paper Comics International vanished, only to reappear a few months later under the guise of a new publisher. The transition has not been a happy one, with the magazine struggling to come out on a monthly basis and when it does appear it is out of date, riddled with too many typos and has an amateurish style that I find a little hard to take. I fear that the editor Mike Conroy isn’t really up to the job. Certainly I thought twice about buying the latest issue and having bought it don’t really feel it was worth my while.

For a semi-detached comics fan such as myself this is disastrous from the point of view of the industry. I don’t have any desire to go back to the days when I used to get Previews on a monthly basis and apart from ignoring the UK scene, the US magazines are similarly hype-driven. So how do I find out what’s going on? I’m finding it increasingly difficult and that is reflective in the stuff I buy.

Secondly, there are the comics themselves. I’ve always been more of a DC reader than a Marvel one. This is for the simple fact that it was DC that largely lead the UK-brain drain that lead to people such as Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Grant Morrison working stateside and so it was via them that I got my first real taste of US comics. But for the last four years or more, DC has been vanishing up its own fundament. While Marvel has opted to make itself more accessible, spurred on by its successful film franchises, DC has become increasingly inward-looking.

It began with a 1986 12-part maxi-series called Crisis on Infinite Earths (actually, it began before that with various previous “Crises” but this was the focal point), in which the DC “multiverse” of infinite interlocking parallel universes became just one. It is always a bad idea to set a rule in a sci-fantasy setting like “no parallel universes” – look at how Doctor Who and Torchwood has toyed with the subject – and as a result DC spent the next 20 years bending and even breaking it, coming up with complex ideas like Hypertime to explain it all.

This all eventually lead to the Infinite Crisis – part 20th anniversary celebration of the Crisis of Infinite Earths, part second attempt to sort the whole bloody mess out. This directly lead to 52, a weekly series that ran for a year between May 2006 and May 2007 in which it was revealed that the second crisis had lead to a return of the multiverse – or rather a multiverse of 52 parallel universes. Conveniently this allowed DC to incorporate a number of their other superhero universes into “official” canon. And so, the Wildstorm universe is now part of it (glossing over the fact they have been running crossovers between Wildstorm and DC for over a decade now), the various Elseworlds series each have their own world and even old properties such as the Charlton and Fawcett now have their own worlds back. Even the animated series now gets its own “official” universe.

The problem is, no sooner have they revealed this, but they’ve started on a mission to blow this multi-verse up too. Immediately following 52 was another weekly series called Countdown. Already at least one world has been destroyed, and no doubt more are to follow in the now scheduled Final Crisis which writer Grant Morrison apparently describes as “The Lord of the Rings of the DCU”.

We shall see, and with Morrison at the helm I shall certainly be getting it. But the last four years has required a lot of forbearance. I didn’t bother with Infinite Crisis and by all accounts I was wise not to. 52 was good, Countdown has been distinctly average and the seemingly endless Countdown spin-offs have been worse than that. The whole thing has apparently been a hit but I’m left wondering who with?

There are two types of comics I read: things that I actually like, which tends to include 2000AD and pretty much anything penned by Joss Whedon, and stuff I buy out of habit. I’ve been buying far too much of the latter of late. And while DC have been pretty bad here, Marvel are just as bad offenders with their Civil War and Zombie-everything. I’ve already been sucked in but in what way is this accessible to new readers? They appear to have got caught in the same rut that Doctor Who got caught in in the 80s – fans writing for fans, keeping the community blissfully happy but not catering for anybody new.

So much for the superheroes, my other quandary lies in the fact that I find it increasingly difficult to find my way around what is sometimes rather snootily described as the comics “mainstream” – i.e. the stuff out there which isn’t all about lycra-clad musclebound buffoons who periodically blow up planets. A big Sandman fan, I got rather tired of the ever poorer cash-ins that Vertigo devised to milk that particular cash cow. Alienated by all that, I now get the impression that I missed out of some really good stuff. But how do I tell the good from the bad? I got quite into the indie-scene in the mid-nineties and was impressed by the range of good material out there. But the chaotic schedules left me a little lost. I gave up on Strangehaven having completely lost track of when the next issue was due out.

Overall, I’m feeling a little lost. I’m sure there are websites out there which can supply me with news, but it’s tough figuring out even where to start. It seems that the comics industry has found its little niche and is quite content plugging away at it, leaving it to the film industry to occasionally give it a boost. I’m not sure how sustainable all this is in the long term: if a relatively hardcore fan like myself can get alienated, isn’t there a danger this will all collapse on itself in ten or so years time?


  1. I’ve never really got into comics; I always wished someone would do proper novelisations of the better stories.

    Comics have got one huge problem which is distribution. There are a number of “geeky” niche business that had or have their own distribution systems. Most of them have either gone into book publishing, which has one of the most open distribution systems available, or have not been able to do so and have really struggled.

    For instance, where would you buy a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards? Remember that for that business to work, people have to keep buying booster packs, so you need bulk distribution to stores or the P&P cripples you. You’ll notice that roleplaying games are books only (no boxed sets any more; bookshops and Amazon don’t like them; that does make distributing non-D6 dice difficult, but people only need to buy them once), that the wargames industry has collapsed to semi-pros selling thousand-copy print runs by mail order, and frequently requiring 500+ pre-orders before going to press. The miniatures industry, outside of Games Workshop, is mail-order only, and has the exact same distribution problems as wargames. Games Workshop is still a functioning distribution system, but only for “the Games Workshop hobby”. Even with computer games, walk into GAME and it’s 95% consoles, and the PC games are reduced to a few big hits. Much of even the PC gaming hobby, especially niches, is now direct-order from publisher only.

    The comics industry might end up with a small, for-fans distribution system of the actual comics themselves, and a much wider distribution of graphic novels. Plenty of people will buy book 9 of a 17-part series of extruded fantasy product; why not sell them a graphic novel 2-4 times a year? If they buy regularly, then you can sell them on a subscription to the weekly/fortnightly/monthly comic itself.

    Comics lost their distribution through newsagents years ago; there have never been enough comic shops to truly fill the gap. Graphic novels are the only way to put comic content somewhere that people can flick through on a shelf.

  2. I feel your pain, as someone who worked for an independent comic shop many moons ago – sandman#17 to just before the big kick off with the fates ( no i can’t be arsed to find the issue number) – back then there was a scene but it was mostly older guys who should know better. I still know a gut who has a complete Sadman run mint i duplicate if anyone want to make an offer! – but I digress – This weekened read a review of Blue Pills. It’s due for UK release and it looks rather good

  3. My friend Mike Conroy asked me who you were. I had to admit I’d never heard of you. Now I know you’re a LibDem with strange fascination for Betegeusian phrases of TMO.

    Splundig vur Thrigg!

  4. None, I suppose. I was going to launch a spirited defence of Mike’s stewardship of CI but without you – and most people – knowing what has been going on behind the scenes (and the individuals concerned) it would probably have seemed nothing more than a meaningless diatribe.

    One point I would take issue with you on is your ‘amateurish style’ tag. As someone who has worked in publishing for a very long time I would say that, for an amateur, Mike manages to make CI look a lot more professional that many other fanzines I have seen. Fan publishing, by definition, is an amateur’s pursuit. No one makes a fortune from it but they do bring an enthusiasm that is sadly missing from most professional titles. Mike and I differ in one important way – I would have thrown in the towel by now if I’d had to put up with half the crap he’s had to deal with. Mike, on the other hand, believes wholeheartedly in the future if CI. I’m more than happy to stand in his corner and shout encouragement.

    OK, so there was a point after all. Florix grabudnae.

  5. Richard, I’m not denying that Mike means well and I don’t – I promise you – have the knives out for him. This is my first comment on the subject since his tenure began. But from my point of view Comics International hasn’t been doing the job it did for 15 years for a considerable period of time now.

    If Mike can turn things around, then good for him. But is it really so unreasonable for me to have slightly lost my patience?

    As for Comics International being a fanzine, it didn’t used to be. Dez Skinn liked to wax lyrical about the professional standards he worked to.

    I wish the magazine every success. But I will need some tangible sign that it’s problems are behind it before I pick up another issue.

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