The Five Moments That Defined Comics in the 2010s

Man…what a decade this was in comics. Depending on who you ask, it was a huge success, an immense failure, the beginning of something big, the end of comics as we know it, exciting, disastrous, etc. etc. etc. Whatever it was in actuality – and honestly, it was a mix of all of those and more 30 – it was a lot of it. That’s what things are in the social media era: a whole lot of everything, and perhaps too much at times.

With today marking the last day of the decade, I wanted to use my final longform of the year to look back on this stretch that I believe will will be remembered as a period of transition more than anything. Consider the 2010s as a chrysalis that aided the broader world of comics in moving from what it was to what it might become. This kind of fits the larger pattern of the comics industry, as it seems we’re quietly in a decade-by-decade cycle – starting with the 1960s – where we go from a high point (either creatively, commercially or both) to more experimental or transitional stretches.

The 2010s fit that cycle, with real high points, some low points, and a whole lot of awkward stretches where things are being figured out. Because of all of that change, the 2020s could shape up to be explosive, one way or another. Before we get there, though, I wanted to highlight the five moments that defined comics this decade, focusing exclusively on specific beats rather than general ideas. While there is a massive list of potential items to consider, to me, the five I selected are the clear cut quintet for what made this period what it was for comics and, to a degree, the moments that will help determine the shape of the next stretch. Let’s dig into them in chronological order, starting with the biggest creator from the past ten years.

Smile arrives

The first year John Jackson Miller and Milton Griepp collaborated on an overall report on the comic book industry’s performance – fusing together the book market with the direct market into one giant study – the bookstore channel generated $225 million. That was 2011, the year after Raina Telgemeier released Smile, her first autobiographical graphic novel after helping define The Baby-Sitters Club for a new generation. Smile arrived in February of 2010, and its release effectively acts as a line of demarcation for an entire section of the comics world: there was Before Smile, 31 and then there was After Smile.

After Smile, Telgemeier released five more books – Drama, Sisters, Ghosts, Guts, and her guide to telling your own comic stories, Share Your Smile – all of which were giant hits in their own way. But Smile started everything off, helping build off Jeff Smith’s massive success with Bone and Kazu Kibuishi’s rising Amulet series at Scholastic Graphix in the previous decade to fully establish kids comics as the most important channel in all of the medium.

Per SyFy, Telgemeier’s works have 18 million copies in print in 22 different languages, 32, while Smile itself reached the New York Times bestseller list and managed to stay on it for at least 240 weeks. 33 Her success paved the way for Dav Pilkey’s absurdly popular Dog Man series and a bevy of other creators and publishers who connected readers with this burgeoning and then defining segment of the medium. By 2018, Miller and Griepp’s report showed that the bookstore channel had more than doubled since 2011, going from $225 million to $465 million. With a wave of releases from Pilkey and two from Telgemeier this year, it would be a surprise if the book market didn’t surpass the direct market 34 for the first time ever when the 2019 report comes out. Kids comics aren’t growing; they’re here, and they’re the biggest game in town.

The crazy thing about this is the first kids who discovered comics through Smile are now either well into high school or maybe even graduated from it at this point. Telgemeier helped create an entire generation of comic readers, and now, they’re growing up. Whether or not the comic industry developed that audience by helping those readers discover comics for older readers is uncertain – I’d say they haven’t, which is just a guess but also unfortunate if true – but regardless of the answer, Raina Telgemeier was the defining person of this past decade for comics and Smile was its most impactful release. Nothing else was close.

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  1. And perhaps also less?

  2. It’s truly unfortunate this abbreviates to BS.

  3. Important to remember, though: that’s in print, not sold to readers. That’s a huge difference between the book and direct markets.

  4. It’s possible the only thing that stopped her reign was the graphic books list going away for a time.

  5. Or comic shops.

  6. And perhaps also less?

  7. It’s truly unfortunate this abbreviates to BS.

  8. Important to remember, though: that’s in print, not sold to readers. That’s a huge difference between the book and direct markets.

  9. It’s possible the only thing that stopped her reign was the graphic books list going away for a time.

  10. Or comic shops.

  11. At least the first one.

  12. Per Comichron, as is almost every other sales number featured here.

  13. That’s not even including the direct market.

  14. While Smile was a smash in the book market, it only performed okay in the direct market. The Walking Dead was a giant everywhere.

  15. I say “really” because some might argue against that, as post Crisis of Infinite Earths was an interesting time that was somewhat similar. It just lacked the conviction of the New 52.

  16. I know far too well. My pal Brandon Burpee and I reviewed all 52 issues for the first few months. Many were very, very bad.

  17. Including cartoonist Ben Sears, of all people! Ben Sears! That’s about as far as you can get from a New 52 guy, yet that was the case!

  18. I included both units and dollars to ensure anyone who wanted to say “this is just because comics became more expensive!” had additional context.

  19. I know that sounds weird but it’s true.

  20. Or whatever exactly happened. It was super weird and I’m still not exactly sure what happened. Doctor Manhattan might have been involved?

  21. I wasn’t creeping on them, it was just hard not to notice.

  22. Except I’m not getting paid, which may mean I’m doing this wrong.

  23. That’s the fascinating wrinkle of Webtoon. Everyone earns money for their comics, but only certain titles – “Original” – are paid directly for having their work on Webtoon, while the others – “Canvas” – are user generated and earn effectively banner ad revenue, with the potential to be upgraded to Original status.

  24. I was one of them.

  25. Maybe even its first 30 minutes, if my reading of Ukazu’s updates are correct.

  26. aka non-direct market titles.

  27. And even now, to a degree.

  28. Ukazu is a great example of this, as Check, Please was eventually picked up by all-ages comics titan First Second.

  29. Some driven by creators, and some by the platform itself, like its recent anti-union activities.

  30. And perhaps also less?

  31. It’s truly unfortunate this abbreviates to BS.

  32. Important to remember, though: that’s in print, not sold to readers. That’s a huge difference between the book and direct markets.

  33. It’s possible the only thing that stopped her reign was the graphic books list going away for a time.

  34. Or comic shops.