DC Comics

WTF Comics

Here’s a video made through a spontaneous team-up with Weyward Sisters Productions. It was great fun to meet them and collaborate on this. Hopefully it’s enjoyable whether you know about comic books or not. In case it helps, go through the jump for the back story and info on how this was made through the magic of Facebook.

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Year in Review: Superhero Comics double down

The New 52 hits comics stands

Much of this year was a struggle for most of the comics industry, but it seemed particularly apparent in the primary publishers of American superhero comic books, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Those two publishers also comprise about 75% of the comic book market, as tracked through North American comic book stores, so if they’re struggling, the entire industry struggles. For the first 3/4 of 2010, sales at comic book stores drifted away.

Some retailers began to complain that Marvel and DC weren’t providing any big high profile comics to bring readers in. Through much of the 2000s, both publishers had released big summer events that consumed much of their respective lines. These big crossover events, like DC’s Identity Crisis (2004) and Marvel’s Civil War (2006), garnered some headlines from mainstream media and definitely got fans talking. Most important, it got them buying. Soon, much of their publishing strategies were built around the next event, with comics devoted to teasers, prequels, accompanying mini-series, spin-offs, sequels and so forth. It got to the point where it would literally cost one or two hundred dollars to get every issue that was part of one single event, if one was that much of a compulsive completionist (and let’s face it, plenty of superhero fans are just that). Toward the end of the 2000s, readers started to complain of what became called “event fatigue”. The never-ending cycle of an earth-shattering, teeth-gnashing crisis leading right into the next bleak crisis was losing appeal. So DC and Marvel took a break from them, although they kept publishing smaller more contained mini-events. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, they didn’t replace these sales magnets with compelling comics that would bring readers back (or, to dream the impossible dream, bring new readers in).

So to answer retailers’ concerns, instead of innovating, they returned to the same trick: big line-wide crossover events. Unfortunately it didn’t work this time. Marvel’s Fear Itself and DC’s Flashpoint were largely met with lukewarm sales and reviews this summer. Meanwhile, Hollywood was showing that it could actually do halfway decent superhero stories, certainly more accessible, entertaining and populist than their current comics counterparts. All summer long, big screen audiences were hit by Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger, with no compelling reason to carry any interest in the characters to comic book stores. Even DC Comics’ valiant promotion of rolling back or holding cover prices at $2.99, instead of the increasingly common and excessive $3.99, didn’t do much to turn losses around.

So it finally became clear something truly big had to be done. Waving arms around yelling “hey look!” in the traditional fashion didn’t get anyone to really notice or care, so it was time to bring back the old stand-by of adding in a hearty table flip. Just after their Flashpoint crossover had started, DC Comics announced that their entire superhero universe would be (sorta) reborn. Every series would be cancelled and an entirely new line-up of 52 comics would start over the next month. In many ways, it’s the mother of all events, and similar to a move DC Comics made in 1985 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, where their entire universe was reset for the first time. The difference this time is that there would be a clean break. Starting August 31, every DC Universe comic book was set back to issue #1, with updated costumes and streamlined origin to create a younger, hipper world of superheroes. The New 52 got a lot of press. DC’s chief executives and architects went on an aggressive tour of comic book stores to win over support of the massive gamble. They offered retailers great incentives and the ability to return unsold comics. They did interviews for radio, TV, newspapers, websites. They made TV commercials that airing on cable networks, played before movie trailers and streamed online. Yes, they did something almost unprecedented: they did real marketing to people outside of the current comics reading habit. Letting people know that something they might like exists is a foreign concept to most comic book publishers, but somehow it worked. Sales have been great. In many cases, sales of relaunched books doubled the first month of the launch. DC Comics’ market share jumped to make them the #1 comics publisher of North America for the last quarter of 2011, after at least a decade of being #2 to Marvel. Some other publishers have even reported improved sales for their own unrelated comics as a possible side effect of the New 52.

Miles Morales stars in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1

So the industry is saved, right? Well… not quite. Reviews have been mixed, the consensus seems to be that some books are good, some are OK, some are bad. There are concerns over excessive violence and objective depictions of females, just as there were before the relaunch. After five months, retailers are already seeing sales settling back down to how their stores were selling DC books before the New 52 launch. Unfortunately that has historically been the pattern with events. Initial enthusiasm reflects in temporary sales bumps. But without  sustaining quality that speaks to larger audiences, it’s always temporary until the next big event needs to be concocted.

While Marvel hasn’t done something quite as aggressive relaunching their entire line, they have been making changes, amid a series of layoffs and cutbacks. Probably their highest profile move was their new Spider-Man, the multi-racial Miles Morales, in their Ultimate Comics imprint, also first announced in USA Today. They’ve also announced plans to release in 2012 a new line of original graphic novels updating the origins of their most popular characters. Previously swearing that original graphic novels just didn’t make financial sense to them, the move is presumed to be a response to DC’s successful Superman: Earth Oneoriginal graphic novel, released in 2010.

Both Marvel and DC also stepped up their schedules in releasing digital comics. DC announced they would release their comics on the web and mobile devices the same day their print comics are released in comic book stores the same day their New 52 began, August 31. Marvel has been slowly rolling out a similar strategy instead of a line-wide shift all at once. They announced to Gizmodo in November that by March 2012, all of their titles would be on a simultaneous digital/print release schedule (excluding licensed comics and their mature MAX imprint). Marvel was the first of the two to experiment with this kind of release. Comic shop owners have been nervous about digital stealing away customers, and their vocal protests is believed to be the reason for the staggered pricing schedule that has become standard for day-and-date digital releases. For digital comics released the same time as their print counterpart, their price will match the print version’s cover price (typically between $2.99 and $3.99). After a month, the price drops to $1.99. Both Marvel and DC tend to have sales that drop some prices to $0.99, and some issues are available for free.

Did DC’s New 52 just stall the inevitable? How will Marvel respond to regain their lost market share? How will retailers who rely on superhero comics deal with digital comics? 2012 will be an interesting year.

Comics Publishers Come Out in Support of Dangerous Online Piracy Bill

Happy Holidays, everyone. Now stop using the internet. That appears to be the message from a number of comics publishers, however unintentional.

On Thursday, December 22, the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, chaired by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), released a list of supporters of H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This bill is an attempt by lawmakers to address intellectual property security concerns on the internet. However, it has been flagged by various organizations and individuals for going too far, giving broad power without due process, limiting free speech and discouraging technical innovation. Graphic Policy has a great summary of the bill’s weaknesses and how it relates to the comic book industry. Some are claiming it could cripple social sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Tumblr, along with thousands of harmless fan-sites and any other sites sharing their IP addresses.

Among the corporations and organizations listed as supporters of SOPA are the following comic book and graphic novel publishers:

Also included is the Association of American Publishers, which counts DC Comics, Disney Publishing and more among their members.

As we come out of the holidays, many of these organizations might have to start responding to a vocal outpouring of concern among customers and partners, and in some cases, threats of organized boycotts.

There has been considerable push back already, and from public pressure some organizations have dropped their support of SOPA. The Graphic Artists Guild has retracted their support, stating “We are concerned that the bill may have unintended consequences that may do more harm than good.” They also added that they “have not spent a dime on any lobbyist in Congress for this bill”. The largest domain name registrar GoDaddy faced massive threats of boycotts, and has also reversed their position. Time will tell if more will shift their support.

(via Graphic Policy)

Comics Lose Two Original Innovators

Two of the true innovators and original pioneers of the comic book industry died recently.

Jerry Robinson died Wednesday, December 7, at the age of 89. Robinson will forever be most linked with the 1940 creation of Batman’s nemesis and possibly the first super-villain, The Joker. During this time, he also co-created Robin the Boy Wonder to be Batman’s sidekick, which established what soon became an iconic narrative device for superhero comics, and of course the inevitable wave of sidekick imitators. As if forever changing the superhero genre wasn’t enough, he also created another iconic element of Batman, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred. Following his genre-defining work in superhero comics in the 1930s and ’40s, Robinson went on to fight for creator rights (notably in support of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, co-creators of Superman), write The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (one of the earliest publications to detail the history of the art form [Dark Horse Comics published a revised and expanded edition earlier this year]), as well as establish CartoonArts International, a syndicate that helped create distribution networks for political cartoonists around the world. He is the only person to have served as President of both the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and also served as guest curator for several art galleries hosting shows featuring comics art.

Joe Simon died last Thursday, December 14, at the age of 98 of an undisclosed illness. In late 1940 with his partner Jack Kirby, Simon created Captain America, one of the first and certainly the most influential superhero meant to stir up patriotism as the United States considered involvement in World War II. The first issue of Captain America Comics, released in December 1940 (cover-dated March 1941), brazenly featured Captain America slugging Adolf Hitler in the jaw right on the cover. While Hitler now seems like a comic book villain, he was then a real-world political leader. With nearly one million copies sold, it was considered an instant hit and got the attention of Nazi sympathizers and anti-war activists who wrote angry and even threatening letters. Flag-draped superheroes soon came out of the woodwork but few could compete. Simon served as head editor of the Marvel Comics precursor, Timely Comics, during this time, but soon moved on with Kirby to create a brand new genre for the comics art form: romance. Now frequently satirized, romance comics were a massive hit and brought in a whole new demographic. The two were also pioneers in establishing the horror and true crime genres in comics, which were also huge sellers. Simon went on to consult for Harvey Comics in the 1960s, helping to develop then new characters Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich. Simon also wrote two autobiographies, The Comic Book Makers and this year’s Joe Simon: My Life in Comics.

Indicative of how small the industry is and was back then, the two shared studio space in New York City for a time.

Comics Surge Somewhat – But Will It Be Too Late, Will It Be Enough?

Mobs of people & comic books, reunited at last?

Fueled almost entirely by enthusiasm and public interest in DC Comics‘ bold New 52 initiative, the comic book industry is seeing what appears to be a mild turnaround from a 3-year sinking sales trend at local comic book stores. While pulling sales through comic shops into the black for the first time since 2008 is good news, it’s a modest victory that is already showing signs of diminishing returns in the long term. And what’s worse, it may be too little too late for people trying to make a living making comics.

The most halting example of this occurred late last week when a published comics artist posted a message to his personal Facebook page that many interpreted as a suicide note. Over the weekend, the comics community rallied to support him and arrange for help. This artist has provided artwork for the industry’s major publishers, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics, as both work-for-hire and producing creator-owned comics. But even with his resume, his calls for work were not being returned, his savings were on the verge of drying up, and desperation had sunk in. For most, creating comics is a lonely profession and few have the business acumen to market their creative talents. After working in the industry since the early ’90s, he seemed to think his career, the outlet for his great talent and passion, was over. Fortunately, he is now safe and getting some much needed support. But how many other stories like his are out there? And how many else are seeing their careers retract not because of lack of talent but because of a slowly vanishing market?

Writer Brian Wood is a critically acclaimed writer who has created memorable comics such as Demo, DMZ, Northlanders and more. On his Tumblr page, he recently spoke frankly about his career and the fluctuating state of the industry in the face of digital vs. print.

I’ve had series cancelled recently.  I’ve had pitches rejected for financial reasons.  I’ve seen my editors laid off. I’ve taken page rate cuts (a LOT of us have).  My income from royalties have dropped.  Most comic shops don’t carry my books.  I have very good reasons to suspect my career in comics may be drastically reduced in the near future. Things just plain suck, but I’ve taken these hits, figuring that everyone else is having hard times too.

This isn’t limited to writers and artists, the two creative roles typically seen as the headlining positions in comics production. Comics would simply not be comics without inkers, colorists, and letterers to make the finishing touches of merging the writer’s script with the artist’s pencils. And yet, they too are seeing less and less opportunities. Gerry Alanguilan wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Elmer, but he first made a name for himself in the industry as an inker for superhero and adventure comics published by DC, Marvel and Image. He too is seeing job opportunities vanishing. He wrote the following on his blog:

It’s a hard hard business. There has been a seismic shift in the comics industry that occured over the last 10 years. On one hand one can point a finger at the dire state of world economy, but at the same time, one can definitely point a finger at developments in technology that has affected the art and craft of creating comics.

Although many in the chain of comic book creation are affected, it is comic book inkers and hand letterers that I think are being hit hardest. With the development of new ways of producing comics, companies are starting to use inkers and hand letterers less and less.

He also links to inker Joe Weems and artist Sean Gordon Murphy echoing these concerns with their own observations as professionals in the industry.

It’s not just members of the creative team. As Wood mentioned above, editors and other staff members have found themselves unemployed. Marvel Comics, which until DC’s surge in September has been the number one comics publisher in North America for at least the last decade or two, has recently been placed under strict new budget requirements that resulted in layoffs of editors, executives and other staff among other cut backs. New comic book series in the pipeline have been taken off the schedule and low-selling comics have been cancelled. The publisher allegedly intends to double-down on their big-ticket properties (Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men) and simply publish more of the popular stuff instead of taking risks with new, unproven or inconsistent properties. Of course this means less available jobs.

Marvel is hardly the only publisher going through these kinds of changes. DC Comics made radical staff cuts and changes last year before storming the charts with the New 52. While multiple publishers have reported stronger sales since the New 52 launched in September, it was too late for some employees. Dark Horse was forced to lay off staff earlier this year due to struggling sales. Likewise, a number of comic book stores just haven’t seen enough improvements, such as Evermore Nevermore in Mesa, Arizona, which is closing after only 2 years due to the recession and not enough interest from the light downtown foot traffic.

The larger financial picture makes an immense challenge seem impossible. But until the industry makes a concerted joint effort in capturing new audiences with varied tastes, the bigger and bigger publishing stunts working within the same infrastructure will only go so far.

Comic Books Have Heart: Hero Initiative Raises Money for Creators in Need

You might not think it, but the comics community has a big heart. One great example is The Hero Initiative, a Los Angeles-based charity that raises money for creators who are in dire straits (not the band but the financial situation). Here’s a video I put together of a special event held at Meltdown Comics this past Saturday night.

For you savvy comics folks, that’s writer Mark Waid of Kingdom Come fame yelling out “you’ve made a powerless enemy”. He and producer Tom DeSanto were probably the most generous bidders. Mike Malve of Epic Digital Media was the winner of the Alex Ross cover in the video above. The entire night raised about $15,000 for The Hero Initiative.

How Much Would You Pay for Superman?

Check to buy Superman (March 1, 1938)

How does $130 sound?

That’s what publisher Jack Liebowitz paid to own all of the rights to the character in 1938. Pretty good deal.

Above is the actual check received by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to buy their new Superman character outright. The check is dated March 1, 1938, and also includes payment for work by the creative partners appearing in comics cover-dated June 1938: $210 for stories appearing in Detective Comics #16 (21 pages in the publisher’s flagship book at the time), and $36 each for work in More Fun Comics and New Adventure Comics (probably issues #32 and #27, respectively). The total comes to $412. Noticeably absent is payment for their work in Action Comics #1, also cover-dated June 1938, although it’s possible that the $130 payment includes both the rights to Superman and compensation for their writing and illustrating the story.

The check is going to auction next year at ComicConnect. On Monday, it was posted to Twitter by Gerry Duggan (writer of The Infinite Horizon and fellow Emerson grad), where it immediately spread like wildfire among the comics community.

Andy Khouri of Comics Alliance has a great write-up that covers the historical significance of this check resurfacing after being assumed lost for decades. It is the beginning of a long and depressing narrative of the fight for creator rights and fair compensation in comics, and the complex series of ugly legal battles between DC Comics and the families of Siegel and Shuster that continues to this day. In 2008, the Siegel Estate was awarded half of the copyright to Superman as he appeared in his earliest comics and newspaper strips, but that ruling is currently being appealed. The Shuster Estate may be able regain its portion of the copyright in 2013. (In what maybe should have been a red flag of the troubles ahead, both Siegel and Shuster’s names on the check were misspelled by Liebowitz.)

The check was also used as evidence in the first comic book copyright lawsuit, Detective Comics, Inc. v. Bruns Publications, Inc. In 1939, Detective Comics sued Bruns regarding the latter’s Wonder Man character, which DC claimed infringed on Superman due to the likeness of their powers. That case was found in DC’s favor, establishing a precedent that led to the more popular Captain Marvel getting similarly squashed 11 years later. These cases allowed Marvel Comics to use both of these names in the 1960s and ’70s without any opposition. It also resulted in the British license of the original Captain Marvel to be reinvented as Marvelman by Mick Anglo in 1952, which is the beginning of a whole other epic battle of legal entanglements that only recently got cleared up (allegedly).

(Hat tip to Scott Shaw!)