The Two Sides of Comics

On where things are as we head into the new year, and the importance of what comes next.

One of the difficulties of any storytelling medium is there’s a duality at each’s heart. That’s because while the art form and the business exist together, there’s a fundamental tension between those two sides baked in, chafing to some degree at each point they meet. What’s good for one isn’t necessarily for the other, and because of that and larger societal trends, those two sides aren’t always aligned from a status quo standpoint.

That’s what makes even a simple question like “How was the year in comics?” more complex than it might seem on the surface. It really depends on what you’re asking about!

Take comics, the medium, as an example. 2022 was a wondrous year, filled with strong efforts for every type of reader. If you’re a Wednesday Warrior who is ride or die with the Big Two, you lived well, with effective events and top-notch titles at both DC and Marvel. Similarly, those focused on the graphic novel side of things had an arguably even better year, especially if you love autobio comics. No matter if your preference is manga, Webtoon, creator-owned, digital comics, or whatever, there was a lot to love. Comics are at a high point creatively, and we’re all reaping the benefits.

I’m not sure comics, the business, can make similar claims. It doesn’t feel as if it’s in the same healthy position as the medium itself. I say “feel” rather than stating a concrete truth because it’s increasingly difficult to definitively say how the broader industry is performing quantitatively in this new multi-distributor, low information environment we’re in. There’s no sales data you can point to and say, “things are good” or “things are bad,” at least not yet. When that comes out via Comichron and ICv2’s report for the year, 2022 may prove to be flat or even up compared to 2021. That’s good, at least on the surface. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean things are working properly, at least not in a sustainable way.

That’s because the past year saw the industry itself taking body blow after body blow. Whether that was ComiXology’s disastrous update 6 and publishers crumbling in front of our very eyes or the continuation of certain trends and persistently stagnating rates, there’s just a general, pervasive sense of uncertainty in my conversations with people inside comics about what’s going on these days. To continue the boxing analogy, while body blows rarely lead to an immediate knockout, they do slow you down and make it more difficult for anyone to thrive. That’s certainly the case in comics — particularly the direct market — right now.

You can see that everywhere you look. Publishers are struggling, in ways that are both obvious and not. Retailers are battening down the hatches as they try to survive this stretch. Creators are grasping at straws, experimenting aplenty both to find new solutions and to simply make it through all this. It might not seem like that from the outside, because we as readers are blessed with incredible comics from all sides of the medium, as noted earlier. But things aren’t as rosy as the work itself might suggest, and it’s all reflective of the choices that have been made up until this point in time.

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  1. Which feels like it didn’t take place last year, but 1,000 years ago.

  2. In both a classic sense and an investment one.

  3. This isn’t a universal truth, but it’s something I’ve heard enough anecdotally to know it’s a real thing.

  4. The answer is probably Batman for Western creators.

  5. So around 2012 or so.

  6. Which feels like it didn’t take place last year, but 1,000 years ago.