Comics Disassembled: Ten Things of Note from the Past Week in Comics, Led by Explosive Growth
We’re back, even though it probably was not medically recommended for me to do so! I currently am dealing with a pretty rough case of COVID, and have been on a strictly “couch” and “movie watching” diet. This one will be a bit quicker for that reason, but I wanted to get back on the saddle here, because it’s my first week back and regularity doesn’t come without The Two Regulars. Let’s get to it.
1. Comics are, in fact, doing pretty well!
The latest ICv2 and Comichron yearly comic sales report is out, and its look at 2021 is…well, just look at that chart above. To say it’s “positive” would be an understatement. 2021’s performance — which fuses graphic novel, comic book, and digital download sales across the North American book and direct markets — towered over each and every previous year, with a 62% gain over last year and a 70% gain over 2019’s pre-pandemic year. 2021 was so big that it was larger than multiple pairings of years over the nine years that preceded it, which is insane.
We already knew it was a massive year. The Bookscan numbers showed the book market and graphic novels putting up staggering numbers, particularly manga and Dav Pilkey. Comichron’s John Jackson Miller had already noted that 2021 was shaping up to be a monster for the direct market. Pair that altogether, and we knew it would be up. That said, seeing it laid out in such a way is truly staggering. 2021 was a high water year in the history of the industry, per Miller.
The leader was clearly graphic novels. While the book and direct markets were closer than I expected, graphic novels towered over floppy comic books, with the former contributing over $1 billion more in revenue to the industry in 2021. Comics were way up — and with fewer releases too, making it all the more impressive — but graphic novels were up to a degree that it made this less of a competition and more of a blowout.
The big question is, of course, can it sustain this? Is this a new normal, or is this a peak? It almost certainly has to be a peak to a certain degree, and with inflation and cost of living really starting to impact people, it’ll be worth watching to see how entertainment mediums like comics and graphic novels maintain in 2022 alone. Regardless of what happens next, though, this is great news. As per usual, too, great job by Miller and ICv2’s Milton Griepp on putting this report together. It’s always a gem.
2. Those Digital Downloads, Though…
While there was only one category that was down in the aforementioned report — newsstand sales, which…I don’t even know what that would be — if there’s a continued disappointment from these reports and the industry overall, it’s digital download sales. Those are sales of comics in which someone directly downloads the comic to a digital device like a phone or tablet, likely through ComiXology or whomever. In a monster year that had 62% growth over the previous one, digital download sales went from $160 million to $170 million, despite a pandemic that continued to rage.
That seems weird, especially considering how many hypothesized that digital might see a spike because the pandemic. But it also makes sense in its own way. As ComiXology has seen immense amounts of negative feedback because of its ill-considered update this year, I’ve heard from an array of sources that this side of digital just isn’t that significant of a producer for a number of publishers. Big and small publishers alike, too! More than that, if this suggests anything to me, it’s that the preferred flavor of digital comic experience for readers is the all-you-can-eat subscription platforms like Marvel Unlimited, DC Universe Infinite, and ComiXology Unlimited. Those numbers are not included in here, and that is a massive potential revenue source that isn’t factored in here.
It’ll be interesting to see how digital downloads do in 2022, as ComiXology’s trials and tribulations have led to a lot of consumer talk about not using the platform anymore. I’m not sure the bite has been as bad as the bark here, but if revenue on this side was effectively flat in a perfect environment for growth, what will it be in a far less ideal one? That’s for next year’s report, but digital downloads, you continue to disappoint!
3. North and Henderson, Together Again!
Sometimes these items are complicated entries of nuanced thoughts, in which I have to consider many factors and ideas to come up with what I really want to say. Testing my rational self and my imagination in equal measure, I have to factor in all angles to a story as I delve deep into what it really means.
BUT THEN OTHER TIMES IT’S JUST RYAN NORTH AND ERICA HENDERSON, BACK TOGETHER AGAIN!
That’s right, the original The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl team is back together again for the upcoming Penguin Teen graphic novel Danger and Other Unknown Risks, and it is an absolutely perfect comic. How do I know that? Well, there’s the title, there’s the team, and there’s the dog on its cover. That’s all I need! It’s perfect!
The fact that it a) is about a world affected by Y2K, b) features unstable magic, c) stars the incredibly named Marguerite de Pruitt and a wondrous dog named Daisy, and d) is about those two trying to save the world from some craziness just makes it all the better. Oh, and it was described in the announcement as “equally laugh-out-loud adventure and emotional gut punch,” which is pretty much the Squirrel Girl way. That I love. It just sounds wonderful across the board, and knowing it’s from North and Henderson ensures that it will be so. I am incredibly into this. The fact it isn’t coming until April 2023 will not bring me down at all!
4. ComiXology, Updating!
A much awaited addition is finally here for ComiXology, as the digital comics giant launched a beta for the web reader that has been absent ever since its much maligned update earlier this year. While the comments on the Twitter announcement are still as gladiatorial as ever, but something unusual showed up in there as well: some people saying phrases like “big improvement” or “much, much better” about the change. My god, are we turning a corner in the great ComiXology saga?
Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s nice to see progress being made, and people responding to said progress. The chief concern seems to be the shopping experience these days, which, you know, is hard to disagree with. I’m not a big digital guy, but shopping without intent or, heck, even with intent reveals the current marketplace situation to be subpar, at best. But it is reassuring to see genuine positive changes as they get further into this. Sure, it would have been better if it was all taken care of ahead of time. But that’s not what happened. Baby steps are what we get instead!
5. Esad Ribić, The God of Thunder
If this week had played out as I originally had planned it to — aka I didn’t get COVID and was able to function like a normal human — Thursday would have been a sister column to my Thor feature that ran on Tuesday, with that being a celebration of Esad Ribić’s run on Thor: God of Thunder, particularly in the the first two arcs God Butcher and God Bomb. It, of course, did not play out that way, and because next week will be a much different flavor of one, writing about the little things that made Ribić’s run on that title one of the true greats in Marvel history doesn’t make quite as much sense.
That said, I still wanted to celebrate Ribić here, because he deserves it, both on the occasion of Thor: Love and Thunder arriving and because it’s a Friday and I feel like it. Throughout Thor: God of Thunder, Ribić showcased why he’s one of the very best to ever do it, selling every beat whether it was dramatic or comedic, light or dark, fiercely imaginative or dire beyond words. Action, character focused, final page, first page, lots of panels, few panels, whatever. The guy brought out every trick in his bag throughout the run, and he nailed each and every page he did throughout that series.
Some might have wondered, why would someone like Taika Waititi reuse the imagery from the comics in Thor: Love and Thunder? It’s one thing to homage a Marvel artist like Jack Kirby, as he did in Thor: Ragnarok. It’s a bit more surprising to use a singular image completely, as we saw in the first Love and Thunder trailer. Well, I’m guessing when Waititi read Thor: God of Thunder and saw Ribić’s work, he probably asked himself, “What the heck could I possibly come up with that’s better than this?” The answer is simple: nothing.
I didn’t get to write my full column on him, but here’s my hot take to close, even though I’ve already said it before: Esad Ribić’s run on Thor: God of Thunder is one of the best Marvel has ever published. The guy is a boss, and perpetually deserves his flowers. This is my attempt to give him a fraction of what he deserves, even if it isn’t nearly as much as I wanted to write.
6. Dan Slott and Mark Bagley, Together…Wait, Not Again?!
How is it possible that Dan Slott, the person who has written more Spider-Man comics than anyone ever, and Mark Bagley, the person who has drawn more Spider-Man comics than anyone ever (I am 95% certain on both of those)), have not worked together before? Doesn’t that seem outlandishly impossible? Like it’s untrue? Like you’ve definitely read a Spider-Man comic from the two of them before?
Well, you haven’t. That is, unless you’re a time traveler and you’ve read October’s Spider-Man #1, which pairs Bagley and Slott together again…for the first time. This stems from the ending of the upcoming End of the Spider-Verse mini-series, which no doubt stemmed from the upcoming Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One) movie that was meant to arrive in October but was pushed back to June 2023. This one feels a little weird to me. Bringing Slott back at all feels weird, but putting Slott with Bagley can’t help but feel like it will reorient attention in the Spider-Man line away from Zeb Wells and John Romita, Jr.’s current, seemingly well-liked run on Amazing Spider-Man.
Maybe this is a play for traditional fans, something that seems almost insane to say about Slott, whose work on Amazing was immensely polarizing (and honestly quite good at times). Maybe it was just movie tie-in hype building. Maybe it’s just an attempt to have two big Spider-Man books at the same time. I’m not sure. It just feels weird, sort of like Slott and Bagley never having worked together before.
7. Ultraman x Marvel x Me? Probably Not.
Every once in a while, Marvel (and DC and every other major comic publisher, to be fair) loves to do crossovers between their biggest characters and random other notable characters from around the world of pop culture. It’s a staple to the medium, much in the same vein of variant covers or the temporary nature of death. That said, despite my love of Marvel and of Kaijumax, seeing Marvel and Tsuburaya Productions team up for a crossover of Ultraman and the Avengers in Schuwatch! Avengers Assemble! in 2023 just feels…emptier than usual.
I know Shin Ultraman is doing well and it looks quite cool, and I know Marvel was already doing Ultraman comics for…reasons that are not altogether clear to me — I just have never gotten the impression that licenses outside of Star Wars do much for Marvel — but this one is just an ultra nothing burger to me. Sure, writers Kyle Higgins and Mat Groom are talented, having plenty of Ultraman and Ultraman adjacent experience already. But this feels like a fascinating blend of craven and uninspired to me, paint-by-numbers licensing work that won’t move the needle and will arrive and depart at equal speeds. It’s an odd one, I must say.
If you’re going to swing for a crossover like this, go big or go home. Give it some narrative spice rather than just throwing some Avengers in there. Make it Ultraman and Fin Fang Foom! Give me Peni Parker + SP//dr pairing up with Ultraman! Go full Crank (the Jason Statham movies, not the letterer) and make Deadpool giant for whatever reason and have him team up with Ultraman! Do something that isn’t just Marvel’s most notable superteam pairing with Tsuburaya’s. I guess what I’m saying is, if you want me to pay attention, you’re going to have to Archie vs. Predator this kind of thing. Have some fun with it, because that’s what this type of thing is meant to be: fun.
8. Speaking of Marvel and Licenses…
Previously I had written about Conan’s pending departure — actually sort of ending this week with King Conan #6 this week, I believe — from Marvel, and the idea floated by Graeme McMillan in his newsletter that Marvel was out of the licensing game. As McMillan noted in a follow-up, and the publisher itself is making clear with the previous item, it’s definitely not out on licenses. But one thing did pop up during my break that I thought was worth following up on, even though it’s mostly to close the loop on rather than actually say anything cheerful about: Conan the Barbarian’s license will be going to Titan Comics.
If you’re unfamiliar with Titan, that’s understandable! They’re hardly a big name. If you’re unsure why they would be the pick for Conan’s new home for that reason, well, I have two easy explanations for you, one of which is clear cut fact and one is an opinion. First, the clear cut fact. Heroic Signatures, who holds the rights to Conan, already works with Titan on the prose side of things. So there’s already a relationship there, and one that’s going to expand dramatically as it sounds like they have grand plans for publishing a whole lot of comics in 2023. As for the opinion, my guess — and this is only a guess — is that the competition for these rights were not…fierce.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Conan is niche-y even for comics. Marvel’s Conan books were not doing big numbers by any means. Heck, they weren’t even doing medium numbers. I’m not sure how robust the fanbase is for the character right now, at least in the medium of comics. Now, there are creators who clearly want to work with the character and his world. But people who want to buy the comics? We have mounting evidence that it’s a limited audience. My guess is Titan was a natural partner, but I also don’t think other publishers were beating Heroic Signatures’ door down to take it over themselves. Licenses are weird in comics! Mass audience awareness does not always equate to sales, no matter how some might expect otherwise. That definitely feels like it’s true for Conan, as the character moves on to his third home in five years.
9. Rest in Peace, Pat McCallum
For a 90s kid like me, it’s easy to point to people like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Andy Kubert, Joe Madureira, Humberto Ramos, and assorted others as the big drivers for why I got as into comics as I did. And they are definitely, undeniably high on the list for me. But one name might have been even more important, despite he fact you might not be aware of him: Pat McCallum.
McCallum co-founded Wizard Magazine, as a newsletter he used to write for Gareb Shamus’ parents’ comic shop evolved into the magazine, a guide to everything happening in comics and how much everything was valued at then. It debuted in 1991, and by the time I discovered it shortly thereafter, it changed my entire worldview of comics. Before, it was pretty much exclusively X-Men! Then…it was still a lot of X-Men…but also assorted other things! To say Wizard changed my life is to understate things: it was one of the biggest reasons for me becoming the comics fan I am today.
And McCallum was its co-founder and its defining voice (especially early on), someone whose shadow looms large on comics, both in the positive impact he had on the people who worked for him and the people like me who saw their passion for the medium skyrocket because of the magazine. McCallum departed Wizard before its end, but by 2011, McCallum was at DC as an editor of various levels, bringing an array of folks from Wizard over with him, before he left in 2019. To say he was well-liked there too would be an understatement. The guy was beloved, both for his strengths and weaknesses, seemingly.
That’s been evident in the past couple days, as it was revealed McCallum passed away and an outpouring of loss and love came from anyone and everyone who worked with the guy. But if you ever read — and loved — Wizard, you have him to thank as well. The guy had a massive impact on an entire generation of readers, and that’s worth remembering, especially now.
10. A Quick Reappraisal of Wizard Magazine, On the Occasion
The feature I’ve wanted to write the most and for the longest is an oral history of Wizard Magazine. I even started down that path a decent bit, before a) finding out several key players couldn’t or wouldn’t talk for a variety of understandable reasons and b) that someone else was working on that same feature (although years later, it’s still not been published, so who knows what happened there). I suspect one of the reasons for the hesitancy from some was how easy it would be to focus on the bad sides of Wizard, of which there were many, especially later on. It didn’t age incredibly well, it was juvenile at times, and there were always questions about how exactly hot comics were determined.
It was often imperfect, and more recent looks at it had mostly explored it from that frame. But sometimes, the critical eye can overcompensate, and we can throw out the good with the bad.
Yes, Wizard Magazine was imperfect. But it was also highly effective at what it tried to do, especially early on. Its ability to expand the worlds of comic fans and to generate enthusiasm amongst readers was remarkable, as it almost recreated the feel of a comic shop in a singular publication. I still have many of my early copies, and much of it is still a delight, as I flip the pages and time travel back to when analyzing features like the top villains ranking in The Dark Book special was my everything. It wasn’t just fanboy glee, though. Whether you were talking deep cut recommendations, standing behind great titles that didn’t have as much success, learning art form Bart Sears, or any number of other efforts, Wizard was a gift to readers who had an otherwise limited view of what comics were and could be. That’s powerful. I’m not sure anything has ever replaced it, although one could argue it hardly needs replacing.
Someday, I want to write something more about Wizard, because like I said, the pendulum can swing too far towards “this was bad” when it wasn’t really that simple. Most of the time Wizard would come up to me in recent years was as a laugh. But there was a lot of good too. People like Pat McCallum did what they could to ensure that was true. We’ll see if I get there, but I wanted to say something about it on the occasion of his passing.