The Illusion of Change

Embrace change or maintain the status quo? That's a crucial question facing the direct market right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about superhero comics lately.

More specifically, I’ve been considering commonalities amongst the great ones, and how a consistent theme is how they embrace change rather than maintain the status quo. You can see that in recent efforts at both Marvel and DC, like the broader X-Men line under Jonathan Hickman, Ram V and Mike Perkins’ exemplary Swamp Thing run, or really anything Al Ewing does. These creators might bake in escape hatches, 1 but they don’t go in with an obvious exit strategy. They want everyone reading to know what they’re doing isn’t about the illusion of change; they’re here for actual progress. Big swings are taken, and we’ve all been rewarded for it.

When I talked to Hickman on Off Panel shortly after House of X and Powers of X concluded in 2019, he shared that early on in his time at Marvel 2 he had written a pitch document for the publisher that explained why the X-Men were broken and that even though the line sold well, it would eventually fail. He even included how you could solve that problem, ideas that formed the foundation of his initial stories with the characters. That kind of radical thinking can be a tough sell for many, 3 because if there’s anything comics is guilty of – particularly the direct market side of things – it’s resisting change.

Whether you’re talking about publishers, retailers, or even, on occasion, creators and readers, so much of that part of comics is about maintaining the status quo. This is how they should be made; this is how they should be sold; this is how they should be told. So, when change happens, it can be met with confusion, anger, resentment, and fear.

Part of that is due to some processes genuinely working. There’s a lot of value to the direct market, and strengths too. So many within it fight tooth and nail to preserve the way things are, if only to continue the aspects that do work. But as Hickman proved with the X-Men, sometimes the first step before things can be fixed is admitting they’re broken to begin with. After all, you can’t repair something without agreeing that’s a necessary action to take. And there are undeniably problems here, even if most are so focused on what’s happening around them to do anything about it.

That is, until the the pandemic hit. This once-in-a-lifetime moment broke everything in a way no one could deny. Processes couldn’t be maintained because of the brief closure of Diamond, the temporary lockdowns that affected comic shops, and the immediate evaporation of work for creators. It became a time of great change simply out of necessity. With the status quo no longer available, the only way was forward. While some of that shift was up front, we’re really in it now, with wave after wave of new ideas and alternative solutions being introduced by those involved.

And what we’ve seen is some embrace that change, and others dig their heels in hopes of keeping things the way they were. It’s not purely a new school/old school split either, nor is it limited to any one segment of the industry. Publishers, retailers, creators and even readers fall on both sides, wanting to see something fresh or hold on to the tried and true. And as these diametrically opposing sides have formed, it has started to feel like the side that wins out could dictate the shape of comics forever, for better or worse.

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  1. You kind of have to with Big Two stories.

  2. He believed it was before Axel Alonso had become Editor-in-Chief, so before January 2011.

  3. Hickman did mention that Marvel is a lot more open to new ideas than outsiders might expect.