It’s a strange time for comics. It’s a strange time for media. Newspapers and books are struggling with the digital market, while films and music are fighting piracy. It’s not that simple to say the Internet is killing traditional media; new forms of distribution and a rise of independent creators are forcing pillars of any medium to adapt, but the end to which they are adapting is unclear.
Comic books rose in popularity from the 1940s to 1970s — a time known as the Golden Age and Silver Age of Comics. The industry soon declined, barring the speculator sales boom in the early 1990s that ended up bursting and nearly killing Marvel Comics.
Comics have recovered since then, with a creative renaissance, a new wave of talent and graphic novel sections in major bookstores introducing a wider audience to the medium. But the industry was disrupted as comics began to go beyond the printed page.
So yes, comics are in trouble. Sales are declining and distribution centers are at risk of shutting down. But is the entire industry in danger of collapsing? No, not at all. It’s hard to imagine the destruction of an entire medium. But many publishers could go under, and the market could shrink.
A few years ago, as movies based on comic books took off and popular creators sold the movie rights to their series before the first issues came out, it appeared that comics might become nothing more than the new form of a spec script for Hollywood. But that did not do much to help comics themselves; not every creator or title can swing a movie deal.
So if movies aren’t the end-all, be-all destinations for the comic book world, what is the future of the industry?
The answer is — no surprise here — reinventing the comic. This doesn’t mean throwing out the old or simply retreating back to the storytelling and distribution styles of 1940. Instead, creators and publishers, whether consciously or not, are breaking out of accumulated habits and experimenting more with the medium.
After all, what is a comic but a narrative told through images and text?
It’s not limited to superheroes in tights, sarcastic cats and their owners, noir crime stories or autobiographies. Any kind of story can be told with images and text; more importantly, the combination is practically a blank slate for other elements.
Comics are pricey. An average 22-page comic costs $3. Depending on the extra story elements or additional features, some can cost more than $4. When so many series are story arcs drawn out over multiple issues to pad out the eventual collected edition, it is easy to feel cheated as a consumer.
So there has been a recent effort to give each issue something more. Writers are refocusing on putting more story per page. Grant Morrison’s continuing series Batman Incorporated is a compressed, dense title with each issue featuring dozens of continuity shoutouts, plot twists and new ideas. Each installment is unique and its own story; nothing feels like a random excerpt of a chapter.
Meanwhile, series such as Rex Mundi and LOCAL threw in supplementary material in the back of an issue, ranging from world-building articles to accompanying soundtracks.
But other creators are also trying to use the digital market to help their comics. Comics have been known for captions featuring notes from the editors explaining a shoutout or for infamous sound effects such as “blam.”
Yet with the digital market, people are creating comics that embrace transmedia and add sound and bonus features. Operation Ajax, for instance, offers archival video footage and historical documents as pop-ups in its story of the 1953 coup in Iran.
It’s still a story told via art and text, but these extra elements add a new aspect to the reading experience that shows how the digital realm can be more than just uploaded comic book pages.
Comics are facing a rough time. It’s a strangely paradoxical moment in which comic properties are extremely popular throughout the world, but their titles are not drawing in new readers.
Creators are, however, working to give readers that extra incentive to pick up a comic book by playing with new ways to tell a story. And that’s why people read comics: for exciting and engaging stories. If creators can bring that back, comics have a bright future ahead of them.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Panel to Panel” ran Thursdays.