More and more I have started to notice a painful truth as of late– many of the comics that I think are the most innovative and exciting, struggle to find an audience. No, I’m not just talking about lesser-known underground comics. It seems most titles that aren’t published by one of the “Big 2” companies are not on many readers’ radars. I go to a variety of comic-related discussions around my city, and it seems like all anyone ever wants to talk about is Marvel or DC comic books. Bring up most third-party publisher’s titles and you can almost visibly see people’s eyes glaze over. Inevitably, at some point, every discussion seems to devolve into the tired “which is the best company, Marvel or DC?” trash-talk debate. Why do people who claim to be avid comic fans voluntarily restrain themselves into a single publisher comic book straightjacket? People would never choose to only watch films from a single production company, or play video games from just one developer, yet many seem perfectly content to do so with comics. This factor never ceases to boggle my mind.
Many of these discussions and events that I attend happen at local comic shops. Some of the people who work in these shining beacons of sequential art retail distribution, tell stories of readers that complain about certain titles for months and months (sometimes years) on end– yet still continue to buy them! Now I am not here to trash on Marvel or DC. Many awesome creators do excellent work with these companies, and there are some beloved characters, titles, and history at both of these pillars of the comic industry. But if fans want diversity as much as they claim, I don’t understand the unwavering loyalty at play here. To borrow a phrase, “You’ve been hoodwinked, bamboozled, run amok!” Faith in individual creators, I totally “get.” Preference for a certain character? Sure, completely understandable. But why do so many people only read comics from a single publisher? What do they have on you? Are they holding your families ransom? Do they have compromising and damning pictures that they blackmail you with? I understand that people can’t help what comics they enjoy, but for the future of the industry we love, it is time for comic readers to free themselves from these comic straightjackets.
You may think I am being overly dramatic and hyperbolic here, but I promise you that I am not. Don’t believe me? Look no further than January’s sales numbers over on the Previews website. Go ahead, go and take a look. I’ll wait. Notice anything disturbing? With so many excellent comics and publishers out there, two companies completely dominate that list in a manner that is somewhat embarrassing. In fact, a title from another company does not appear until waaaaaaaay down at #59, where Image Comics’ The Walking Dead finally appears. Given the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series, it is fairly surprising that more people don’t actually read the comics. Shortly thereafter, Dark Horse Comics’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes in at #63. Every time we buy something, we are essentially voting for that product’s success with our hard-earned cash. If these lopsided trends in comic sales continue, I see a future with quite a bit less diversity for readers, and opportunities for creators.
Another thing I have come to realize is that I seem to be in a tiny minority in regard to how I select which comics I purchase. Burnt out on convoluted story lines, spandex, and pointless events that only seem designed to get readers to buy more comics, most of the titles I read are creator-owned or from third-party publishers. Dark Horse, Avatar Press, Image, IDW Publishing, Fantagraphics, Icon, Aspen, SLG, 215 Ink… I could go on and on. These are just some of the companies that seem to publish the comics that I am drawn to. I am not saying that the comics I read are somehow superior to your comics. I still read some Marvel and DC (especially Vertigo) titles. But I am far from being shacked down to one company. I try to be adventurous and check out unfamiliar titles. Every time I visit my LCS, I will give something completely new to me a try. It doesn’t always work out every single time, but other times I find something new and amazing. Sure, I have certain publishers that I prefer, but my mind isn’t closed to any comic. A crazed hobo could create a comic drawn on scrap paper, and if it was good I would continue to read it. Scf-fi, superhero, horror, crime, humor, adventure, drama… I have found comic books that I love from every genre, that I would have missed out on if I didn’t explore a little and sample comics from every publisher.
Do you want to know what I consider to be the most important factor in finding comics that I that enjoy? It has nothing to do with what company publishes a book, and everything to do with the creators. Find writers and artists that have produced comics that you like, and chances are you will probably like their other work as well. That will likely mean that you have to follow them outside of a single publisher, as most creators are not chained to a one company. The creators, I believe, should be a much more important factor than what company publishes a comic. SUPPORT THEIR WORK. This goes double for creator-owned comics. These people really need our support. If you are unhappy with a comic, what reason could you possibly have to keep purchasing it indefinitely? Unless you own huge amounts of stock in a particular company, it probably isn’t a bad thing to branch out and explore the staggering amount of diversity that comics has to offer.
I realize that this all seems like a rant, but if readers want to continue to have the option to choose from a diverse array of comics, we need to support that diversity. Be adventurous, try new things, support good work, and tell others about what titles excite you. Leave the juvenile Marvel vs. DC debate behind, and embrace ALL comics. Escape from your self-imposed comic straightjackets and explore the staggeringly large and diverse world of comics. The future of the medium may depend on it.
I would also like to point readers to a response to this piece from my friend Dan over at Comics Forge,
as well as a blog from Steve Niles about creator-owned comics.