Comics Disassembled: Ten Things of Note from the Past Week in Comics, Led by a Favorite’s Departure

Oh man, this is a loaded week of things I want to talk about from comics, and it became even more so with an influx of news coming from solicits dropping yesterday. Let’s look at a monster week of news, thoughts on varying comics, and more in this week’s edition of Comics Disassembled, my recurring analysis column that drops each Friday.

From the cover to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #47, art by Erica Henderson

1. Squirrel Girl, Saying Goodbye

When I first started SKTCHD back in 2015, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl had just completed its first arc. This comic from Ryan Q. North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi and Travis Lanham had confounded me with an idea it had presented: what if Squirrel Girl…was actually good? I quickly fell in love with it, and with that came endless evangelization, led off by a review of its first arc that doubled as my very first review on this site.

Within that review, I said, “This comic is a joyous read, and one that is unlike everything else on the stands. Is it your typical Marvel series? No. It is its own thing. We need more of that though. What “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” happens to be is one of the funniest and most original titles around today, and a book that consistently surprises and delights with its unique approach to a genre that often feels stale and uninspired.” All of that is still true to this day, even if Henderson stepped out and fellow artist Derek Charm joined the team: it’s every bit as good as it once was, never losing its charm despite what felt like a seismic shift at the time.

But now, as SKTCHD returns, this title is going through another change, as it was revealed yesterday that the series is coming to an end of the team’s own choosing. They’re going out in their own terms, with North, Charm, Renzi, Lanham and series editor Wil Moss bringing the book to its conclusion with the upcoming 50th issue (although, in reality, it will be its 58th issue – plus a graphic novel – due to a volume change early on).

I might say this from time to time about titles that are departing, but this is one situation where it’s completely true: I will deeply miss this book. Like famed fictional food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl challenged my preconceptions about a passion of mine. With Ego, it was fine cooking. For me, it was “what a Marvel comic could or even should be.” I used to think Marvel comics were best as one thing, but this team taught me that they could be anything, if the right situation arises. That’s a powerful thing, and Squirrel Girl is, for that reason, one of the most quietly influential comics of the past decade. It opened up a new world to Marvel and gave an entire wildly underserved audience something to latch onto (don’t believe me? Just read through the book’s letters column and see all of the kids and parents this book affected).

While this isn’t the “best” comic I’ve ever read 1 – we aren’t going to see it lined up against the Watchmens and Mauses 2 of the world – it is one of the most joyous and heartfelt, bringing something positive and winning to the lives of its readers during a time we perhaps have needed it most. There’s immense value to that, especially to this reader. Well done by everyone on Team Squirrel Girl. Given what you delivered with your most recent concluding chapter of sorts – the brilliant 31st issue that doubled as Henderson’s final issue and the finest issue from either volume of the series – I have no doubt something wonderful is coming our way at the book’s conclusion, even if I have little expectation as to what it could or should be.

But that’s just the way I like it when it comes to Squirrel Girl.

2. Brian Hibbs, Scanning Books

Full disclosure: this was the top item until the Squirrel Girl news knocked it out of the perch. But this item – Brian Hibbs’ yearly breakdown of the Bookscan numbers, which track how trades and graphic novels sold in the larger book market 3 – was the biggest one.

We already knew that the book market was up significantly year-over-year between 2017 and 2018, as they were up 14.02% in units and 7.7% in dollars, but the specifics are really fascinating and continue to show that, well, kids really like comics! Take this fact for you: 12 of the 13 top titles in the book market were by Dav Pilkey or Raina Telgemeier – gods of this side of the world – with Pilkey representing 13% of the total book market by himself and the pair combining to sell 3.6 million copies of their work, as noted by cartoonist Ben Towle. Those are rather considerable numbers! Of the top 20 titles, only one was generally aimed at adults, and as Hibbs noted, precisely zero of these titles were even aimed at the direct market, 4 with even the best performers barely making a dent in the DM.

There’s a fascinating split there, and in some ways, it almost feels like with digital and print, where there are almost complete discrete audiences formed. There’s seemingly little overlap outside of the occasional person who loves it all. 5

Speaking to that, to me, this was the biggest point from the whole piece. I used this line in this week’s longform feature, but I wanted to emphasize it again because it’s an important paragraph from Hibbs: “The market for who is buying comics is changing, and it is changing for the wider and the better.  The eight year old who is inhaling Dav Pilkey in 2018 is going to be the comics-literate adult of 2030 (or whatever), which is going to change what comics readers in the ‘30s will want or expect from comics. The kids reading comics in 1965 totally imagined what the 1980’s comics scene could and would be, which is why we’re where we are today, but the shape of the Western industry in the future is absolutely what today’s children read and see.”

That’s massive, and really emphasized a key point: this is the type of thing that’s going to define what the future of all of comics will look like, as eventually, these readers who love Raina or Kazu Kibuishi or Gale Galligan will be me, the person sitting on their couch waxing ecstatic on their vid channel about the latest holo-comic they envisioned in their braInPad (this is a brain implant they’ll use in 2046, because obviously). Or something like that.

It also further emphasized how little of a factor traditional direct market publishers are in the book market, as even previous giants like Image 6 and DC 7 have fallen considerably from previous heights. The big guns from the direct market have fallen far behind the rest of the Western side of the book market, as the combination of increased efforts by major book publishers and flagging sales have led to Image, Marvel and DC combining to have less market share than Scholastic Graphix by itself.

That’s the thesis for this year’s report: the game has changed. It’s time to adjust accordingly.

The cover to Batman #73, art by Mikel Janin

3. Tom King, Departing?

What a weird deal this is. After Bleeding Cool ran an article with a rumor that writer Tom King was leaving Batman with issue #85 – a good 20 issues before his very recently reemphasized run length would have concluded – the comics internet found itself in a tizzy, grasping for answers while simultaneously despairing and celebrating King’s theoretical departure. But then, it was confirmed: Tom King is in fact leaving Batman with issue #85, although it wouldn’t be the end for King, as he has other projects in the wings for DC (including his follow up to Mister Miracle with Mitch Gerads).

While Bleeding Cool ran an article with rumors about why King left, I’m not here for that. Whatever was coming, it seems safe to say that the Powers That Be cooled on it. But I don’t know, so I’m not going to mess with conjecture about why he is or isn’t leaving. I for one think it’s within the realm of possibilities that King’s final 20 issues – or the story that is told within it – ends up happening, but as its own standalone story where King’s atypical style and approach perhaps fit better than a flagship book, but we’ll see what’s coming down the line. I do feel for King, as regardless of what you think of the book, being allowed to speak publicly about this momentous story you’re building and then, nine days later, being unceremoniously excised from the book without any control from your company’s PR/marketing team as to how it went down is a rather tough look, but mostly for the people behind the scenes.

That’s what I want to address here, as regardless of you think of King, this is another unforced error by DC in the handling of this series, especially in the past year. Related to that, there’s a narrative forming that declining sales played a big part in the move, but here’s a bit of spice for you: that’s not on King, or at least not entirely. Let’s look at some numbers 8 real quick, because I’m me and that’s what I do.

  • Batman #46: 100,140 copies ordered
  • #47: 101,566
  • #48: 112,122
  • #49: 121,836
  • #50: 440,819
  • #51: 111,549
  • #52: 102,344
  • #53: 99,191
  • #54: 94,685
  • #55: 105,609
  • #60: 91,275
  • #69: 88,666

Naturally, a quick reminder about sales numbers: these do not include UK orders, so this isn’t the full number. And these are orders, not actual sales to customers, so in some cases they’re reflective of retailer belief in a book as much as they are in customer belief.

What do you notice there, outside of the rather anomalous 55th issue? Orders dropping below 100k right around when shops would have been able to adjust for final order cutoff after issue #50 and its botched handling in the media, most notably the nuptials – or lack thereof – between Batman and Catwoman being announced in the New York Times, which enraged shops everywhere. Shortly thereafter, orders began decreasing. That’s interesting timing, right? To me, it looks like the Bane that broke this Bat’s back wasn’t King or his handling of this book, it was a combination of the wedding debacle and standard attrition, and by that I mean the declines every comic goes through in sales as a series extends.

Want to know another fun sales fact for you? King’s 52nd issue had an estimated 102,344 copies ordered. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s final issue to their acclaimed run – also #52 – had 102,197 copies ordered. If King’s sales are reflective of its undesirable nature and Snyder and Capullo created an outright classic, then why did King’s 52nd issue have 147 more copies ordered at the same point in the series? That’s of course a murky comparison to a degree because of the relative distance from the Wedding related lift the book saw with issue #50, but still, it’s relatively apples to apples.

To me, the drop off in sales appears to have been initially fueled by the mishandling of the wedding by PR and marketing, which upset shops and likely saw a bit of pushback, order wise (and, more than likely, with some readers). Combine that with standard attrition, the decrease in orders was exacerbated and we have where the title is now in terms of orders. Did King’s approach play a part too? Perhaps! That’s hard for me to say, although I have heard from a couple shops that his Batman has turned off some readers. That’s anecdotal and hardly representative, of course, but it is worth noting.

But if the sales decline – much of which I believe had little to do with how he actually wrote it – was at the heart of King’s dismissal from the book, and then DC’s decision makers left him hanging for Bleeding Cool to control the narrative, then that’s a misplayed hand by DC.

Quick point: I saw someone note on Twitter how of course sales are dropping, that’s because his series has never been relaunched. Which is true! If it was relaunched now, we’d see a big burst in orders. But that’s the beast Marvel and DC have created by relaunching so many times, and it’s a real bummer.

Final quick point: I could see this being good for King! I’ve long thought he has a little Bendis in him, in that his strengths are in stories where he’s in his own sandbox (i.e. The Vision, Mister Miracle, Sheriff of Babylon). It’s when he’s dealing with heavily established characters or continuity that things get polarizing (i.e. Batman, Heroes in Crisis). Maybe this let’s him do what he does best. If so, that feels like a win for us and him.

4. Team Star-Lord, Reuniting

A hearty welcome back to the glorious team that once put together the shockingly heartfelt and potent Star-Lord mini-series a few years back, as writer Chip Zdarsky, artist Kris Anka and colorist Matthew Wilson are bringing beefcake back with them in The White Trees: A Blacksand Tale, a two-issue story at Image.

There’s a whole lot to like here, so let’s start with the basics: this team rules. Zdarsky, Anka and Wilson get each other completely, and them partnering up again is tremendous. And because I’m a specific kind of nerd, I’m particularly thrilled that they’re doing something a bit different here, as each issue is oversized, delivering two 40 page stories each for $4.99. Even more interesting, perhaps, is the fact that this won’t be collected into a traditional trade, with Zdarsky saying it maybe will have a hardcover down the line, but that’s it.

I had been thinking about what they’d do with this, as the size and price point makes a graphic novella a somewhat awkward form. They’d have to charge $7.99 or $8.99 for it to make sense and it’d be rather small for a trade. Going the hardcover only route – if they do that – allows them to charge a little more and spice it up in typical fantasy story fashion, which I quite like. I generally enjoy the idea of doing things a little differently, and going with a quick burst and out with no trade is very much antithetical to the standard comic playbook, so I love it.

Also, this type of story is not something we’ve seen from the trio before really, outside of Zdarsky sort of 9, and seeing the three of them tap into the world of fantasy is tremendously appealing. I’m unsure where this could go from here, but given Anka’s labeling of it – “The White Trees: A Blacksand Tale” 10 – I like to think this could be a world the trio revisits in-between other projects or, maybe someday, as a core focus. Who knows, but I love me a good series that taps into a universe over a series of minis, a la Hellboy or Criminal.

This arrives August 14th. August is starting to feel like it’s going to be a busy month for comic fans like myself, but in a good way.

A double page spread from Runaways #21, by Rainbow Rowell, Andres Genolet, Chris O’Halloran and Joe Caramagna

5. Runaways, Rethinking Grids

There’s a lot to love about this week’s issue of Runaways, as the 21st issue found writer Rainbow Rowell, artist Andres Genolet, colorist Chris O’Halloran and letterer Joe Caramagna delivering an A story about how Chase is handling being the de facto father of the Runaways and a B story of how Karolina is coping with major changes in her life, with other beats with the rest of the cast worked in. Genolet in particular shines, and it’s an art-centric page I wanted to focus on.

The above page is one that finds the camera focused on Karolina as she confesses her feelings and doubts to her therapist, and because of the fundamental confessional nature of the scene and the way it’s shown, it’s hard not to think of Heroes in Crisis and its reliance on the classic nine-panel grid. This isn’t a condemnation of that layout, but I wanted to tout this method as an alternative. I can’t recall seeing it in a comic before, but using a double page spread effectively to deliver 16 panels – 8 on top, 8 on the bottom – gave the team so much space to deliver concentrated bursts of character that felt like it owed more to animation concepts in some ways than it did typical comic ones.

It was conceptually similar to traditional grids, but the way it was shown felt…refreshing? I know that’s a weird word to label it with, but that’s what it was. It was a wonderful change of pace, delivering something familiar in an atypical way, giving the whole scene room to breathe in the process. Very, very smart comic booking right here.

6. Jonathan Hickman, Never Stop Never Stopping

First my guy can’t do interviews about the X-Men, now he can’t stop doing them! 11 This week brought two new ones to the table, as Jonathan Hickman visited Adventures in Poor Taste for X-Men Monday and CBR for…interview Wednesday? It was just a normal interview. But what was within them…that was good stuff. As David Brothers said on Twitter about the CBR interview, “this hickman interview is such a flex,” and really, the same could be said about both: they’re Hickman just putting everyone on notice, as he’s suffering no fools and doing things his way.

And I love it.

Let’s go through some favorite tidbits really quick, because there’s some gold.

  • In the AiPT interview, he specifically cited Mike Carey’s run, calling Carey’s work “criminally underrated” and saying that “there are a lot of things buried in his books that are tier-one ideas that writers following him must have just blown right past.” For hardcore X-Men fans, this is the equivalent of a musician referencing Kraftwerk or Neutral Milk Hotel or something, where you’re like “oh, okay, this guy knows what’s up.”
  • He also said within that interview that while teams and missions will be things, they won’t be a core focus in a classic “Blue” and “Gold” sort of way. Which, yes. You do you, Jonathan.
  • Hickman was asked about costumes, and his answer was spectacular, as one of his big rules was that mutants wear mutant clothes, not human ones. As he noted, the X-Men have tons of costumes, and using Storm as an example, “In the story that we’re telling, it’s just completely logical that Storm would have a closet full of Storm costumes and not yoga pants and sweaters (but in the instance that she did really need to dress ‘civilian,’ then those civilian clothes should reflect her costume color scheme and immediately identify her as Storm–or, you know, be a fair compromise like the Quitely leather ‘mutant school’ look).” This is incredible, and it’s a revolutionary idea, even if maybe it feels like it shouldn’t be? He also said that creative teams will get a lot of freedom, “but you shouldn’t be surprised to see Storm wearing a Coipel outfit in one book and a Cockrum one in another or the Lee one in another.” Love it.
  • In the CBR interview, he revealed something I’d never heard before, and that’s that Brian Michael Bendis quit the X-Men books, rather than his run ending in its natural manner, so to speak. That’s interesting, but not ultimately relevant to the titles he’s developing.
  • He talks about how the comic format has created expectations for readers – i.e. if you know you’re on page 19 of a 20 page comic, you can guess something big is going to happen – and that like a baseball pitcher messing with the timing of a hitter, he’s going to look to mix up the pace on his books. That will include “data pages” in House of X and Powers of X as designed by the great Tom Muller, which will help make both of them denser reads (like Black Monday Murders) and provide more value to the experience of your average readers. Which…yes. Extreme yes. Maximum Hickman is approaching, my friends.
  • Confirmed: this is not an alt-universe story, nor does it involve time travel. Not that I thought that it was or did, but it seemed as if others did.
  • This isn’t an X-Men related factoid, but he ducks a question within the CBR interview in breathtaking manner, but also in a manner that convinces me he might not come on Off Panel any time soon. 12 Ducking a question while actively noting you are ducking it is a boss move.
  • He’s asked by CBR about whether he’ll create new mutants, to which part of his reply is the spectacular, “I’ve waited my whole life to write Goldballs.” Just in case you’re wondering if he lost his sassy fastball. 13
  • Finally, in the CBR interview, he addresses the idea that Age of X-Man and the preceding Uncanny run don’t matter because of the work he’s going to do, and this part of his answer was spot on: “Personally, I think what matters when you buy a book, or say, see a movie, is did you enjoy it? If the answer is yes, then it was worth it. If the answers no, then it wasn’t worth it.” Good job by you, Jonathan.
The first screen from one of Benjamin Dewey’s brilliant Game of Thrones finale comics

7. Benjamin Dewey, A Gem

Artist Benjamin Dewey isn’t just a remarkable talent, he’s an absolute delight as a human being. I always enjoy his work, whether that’s in more known to the comics world titles like Beasts of Burden or personal faves like his webcomic series Tragedy Series. And given that I am both a Game of Thrones fan and someone who enjoyed the finale of the series, it makes sense that I would enjoy his Thrones related comics he creates for Instagram and Patreon.

His presumably final edition looks at some of the things he would have enjoyed seeing in the finale, and it is straight up perfect. Naturally, don’t read them if you haven’t seen the finale, but each and every panel depicting additional wrinkles or slight alterations to the episode are brilliant, either from a plotting standpoint, a pleasure one or both! Plus, his cartooning is an A+ as per usual – Ghost’s reaction in the final panel is particularly wonderful – highlighting his skills and his general life views at the same time. If you watched Thrones, you’ll enjoy this. Good job by you, Ben!

8. Aggreception, Happening

Each week during Comics Disassembled, if there is just too much to cover to fit into ten items – my arbitrary cap for myself – because of a deluge of semi-to-actually interesting news, I’ll bundle all of that news into one point that’s effectively aggregation within aggregation. I call that in-column phenomenon “Aggreception,” because I’m weird and why not. Anyways, Aggreception’s back this week. Let’s dive through a few more quick points before moving onto the rest of the points.

  • August brings a whole lot of big things in comics, and depending on how you feel about the original Image titles or Todd McFarlane or, well, more specifically, Spawn, this might be one of them: Spawn #300 is coming August 29th, and it’s loaded with big name creators. McFarlane returns to write and draw a story! Greg Capullo’s coming back! J. Scott Campbell will presumably do something sexy-ish! Scott Snyder’s writing something! Jerome Opeña will provide art within! Even better, it’s not a page per creative team, so we have 72 pages to appreciate all of that great art (and Snyder’s writing). I like those people. I’m ambivalent towards Spawn these days. I’m more intrigued than I thought I would be, but whether I buy it or not, congrats to McFarlane! 300 issues in 27 years is a great run for a creator-owned book, especially compared to that initial wave of Image titles (besides Savage Dragon, which, despite a lower issue count, wins out because Erik Larsen does everything there).
  • Speaking of pages per creative team, Marvel is apparently warming up for next year’s April Fool’s Day by announcing that their much talked about (but mostly not in a good way!) anniversary issue Marvel Comics #1000 will be followed by…well, Marvel Comics #1001 at the Diamond Retailer Summit in Las Vegas. Which makes sense in some ways, but also really doesn’t? It was a cute thing of sorts when it was just #1000. Now it just feels like Marvel’s more questionable business practices going for broke. Not feeling this one guys. 14
  • Marvel: Come over.
    Me: No. I don’t need any more Conan comics. Or any Conan comics, if I’m being honest.
    Marvel: Esad Ribic is writing and drawing a new one called Conan the Barbarian: Exodus.
  • The first preview for Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain’s Once and Future – a comic I at one point was much more interested in because of how BOOM! was handling it from a sales and marketing standpoint – is out, and all of sudden, I’m quite interested in it. Mora + Bonvillain is apparently a god-level combination. I am there.
  • Marvel’s launching a new five-issue Agents of Atlas mini-series out of War of the Realms, with this version of the much canceled (but much loved!) series starring exclusively Asian and Asian American characters like Silk, Jimmy Woo and Amadeus Cho, with Greg Pak writing it and the team of Nico Leon and Carlo Pagulayan on art. I honestly don’t really have a take on this. It sounds…fine? I like the characters! I like the creators! I just don’t really have a real hype level for this by any means.
Cover to The Avengers #19, art by Ed McGuinness

9. The Avengers, Nailing Tie-Ins

Event tie-ins are about as variable in quality as any comic you could possibly find. Sometimes they’re great! Sometimes they’re not. They can smoothly mesh with the event itself, while other times, you’re wondering why they exist. Finding one that exists squarely in the “good but also connected to the event” can be tough to do. This week’s The Avengers #19 is one that does.

It’s one that is centered around Gorilla-Man, the former Agents of Atlas character who is currently acting as the Head of Security for Avengers Mountain (aka the Celestial everyone is living in) and in some sort of leadership-ish role for Black Panther’s clandestine Agents of Wakanda. The whole issue is built on Gorilla-Man helping defend the Mountain from the incoming forces of Malekith, as the War of the Realms reaches their HQ and its housed masses that were teleported in from New York City’s war-torn landscapes. That’s the core of the story, but it’s much more than that.

The regular series team of writer Jason Aaron and artist Ed McGuinness deftly weave elements from all of the title’s core story threads – the ongoing vampire threat, the contentious relationship with Russia’s super team, the Agents of Wakanda themselves – while building on each of them at the same time, developing stories amidst a tie-in that fills in gaps in the core War of the Realms story. 15 It’s a heck of a balancing act, but one they ably pull off. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Ever since his Black Panther arc that tied into Secret Invasion, I’ve known Aaron as someone who is good at balancing those threads. It’s not a skill every writer has, but Aaron nails it every time.

10. Justin Ponsor, Resting in Peace

I don’t want to go too deep here, because I didn’t know him and can’t speak to what he was going through, but comics lost one of its own in colorist Justin Ponsor (who colored the very comic I wrote about in the previous point), as he passed away this week after a battle with cancer. Ponsor was a wonderful colorist, and one that, near as I can tell, was an even better person. His work with artists like David Marquez, Sara Pichelli, Jim Cheung and Adam Kubert revealed an artist who understood how to match and complement some of the best in the biz to bring the most out of a story. But even beyond that, the outpouring of support from creators underlined a truly special person beyond his work.

If you’d like to get a little insight into the work he did, Marvel editor Nick Lowe created a wonderful thread going through the work he did with Justin over the years, and it’s a heck of a thing.

  1. I did rank it as my eighth favorite comic from the past decade, though!

  2. Maice?

  3. This includes book stores, online retailers, mass merchants and Scholastic book fairs.

  4. Also known as comic shops.

  5. Like me!

  6. Looking at Hibbs’ historic chart is a bit of a nightmare for Image, as their unit sales have dipped by over 50% in just two years, going from $23 million to $7.6 million in the process, much of which stems from the decline of The Walking Dead.

  7. Whose drop off makes Image’s look relatively mild, as they went from a perennial #1 or #2 in the book market to #8 (!!), with overall unit sales just a bit more than a quarter of what they were two years ago. No wonder they moved comics onto the DC Universe app!

  8. All from Comichron estimates.

  9. It really depends on how you label Kaptara

  10. Blacksand is the world this story takes place in.

  11. Jonathan Hickman, come on Off Panel!

  12. You’re still invited, though.

  13. Sassball?

  14. Speaking of…Marvel Comics #1000 being $9.99? That’s gonna be a no from me, dawg.

  15. I’m sure it helps having War of the Realms writer Jason Aaron on both books.