-J. Michael Bestul is a writer for the Addison Recorder. Stephanie Ruehl is an artist who works in a comic book shop. They’re married and have a lot of discussions about comic books and graphic novels. Combine all that into a biweekly feature and you get “J. & Steph Talk About Comics.”
The Addison Recorder has been recounting the year in popular culture, and we’re chiming in with our thoughts about the year in comic books, superheroes, and the influence of TV and film franchises. That latter trend really drove the news and reactions to the four mainstream publishers in 2014, so we start there.
Do You Want to Build a Franchise?
-J.: The big story in comic books this year wasn’t books, but movies. 2014 was the year that Marvel and DC laid out their five-year plans for their film franchises, and everyone went nuts. It was as big as anything announced at an Apple Special Event or at E3. And I get why these announcements were exciting, but I also get the trepidation, fatigue, and backlash (the Recorder wrote about it, and Grantland had a great piece on the toxicity of franchises). More importantly, I worry about the Big Two caring more about their screen properties than their books.
Steph: When I first read the Marvel movie releases for the next five years, I was really excited. Mostly because I had just seen Guardians of the Galaxy and was enthralled by it, but also because Captain Marvel is finally getting her own movie! Then I started to realize that, even though all the planned movies are from great books with great characters and story lines, planning that far into the future is a little… premature. I worry about the over-saturation that Hollywood seems to love once it finds something that works.
-J.: Let’s not forget the TV shows. While Marvel was crushing it in the theaters, DC was putting out super-dramas in primetime. What I’ve seen from Arrow and Flash looked pretty darn good (I’ll never come around to Gotham), but I’m still tentative. At what point do editorial decisions become indistinguishable from marketing decisions for the film & TV ‘brands’? Or is that point already in the rearview?
Steph: Don’t forget Constantine, which seems to be doing well (even though I found him a very watered-down version of the character). Marvel won’t be left out of this, either. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has totally come into its own as a good show, and Agent Carter is much anticipated. Even if over-saturation is already in progress, I still get excited about all these shows and movies. What can I say? I’m a geek to the core, and seeing my favorite superheroes on the big screen makes me giddy.
-J.: I’m also a bit hypocritical here, since I love me a good comic book video game. Telltale’s Fables and Walking Dead games were fun (if inconsistent), and the trailers for 2015’s Batman: Arkham Night are insane in the best way possible. I’m so excited that Rocksteady is returning to the series after Warner Bros./DC’s shrug-worthy attempt at console games with Batman: Arkham Origins. It almost makes me think that DC might be learning from its multitude of recent mistakes.
Steph: I’m gonna go out on limb here and say “not likely.”
The Big Two Publishers
-J.: I’m still grumpy with DC. It’s been three years of rolling my eyes at the editorial decisions behind my favorite multiverse.
Steph: I think I can’t really comment on this since I haven’t read past a number one issue of anything DC in long time. Which in itself should say something. DC just can’t hold my attention, and seriously, Lobo. Ugh.
-J.: Any time I think I might like a new title, I can assume the announcement of its cancellation won’t be far behind. And then they announce “Convergence” — dangling Rene Montoya as the Question, penned by Greg Rucka — and I can’t overcome the thought that it will end with bitter disappointment. But I hope. Dear gods, I hope. I mean, my beloved pre-New-52 JSA is going to be there, written by Dan Abnett. It’ll all be okay, right?
Steph: I’m gonna go back out on that limb and say “not likely.”
-J.: Yeah. But Marvel, while better, has only seemed better by default. Keeping with crossovers, I liked the concept of “Original Sin,” and how it affected the Thor narrative. The Spider-verse doesn’t move me, so I can only shrug. And the Death of Wolverine? Sorry, I already went through the stages of grief with the death of Colossus, whose sacrifice lasted just long enough for a Hollywood writer to resurrect him.
Steph: Deaths in comics hardly ever stick, though I’ve been assured by interviews and blog posts and statements that this is, in fact, it for Wolverine… until they reboot everything again.
-J.: Marvel… NOW!
Steph: Cancelations, on the other hand, are only slightly more permanent than death. When I heard She-Hulk was being canceled I was upset. I hadn’t had a chance to read it yet (as I was waiting for vol. 1), but there are so few lady-centric superhero books out there that the idea one was being taken away felt like a blow. Then I read it. It was… okay. Not great, not bad. It was okay. When a book isn’t selling well, canceling it makes sense, but when your book caters to an under-served audience (e.g., women) I feel like you should figure out what you’re doing wrong and try to fix it. Women read comic books. There are a lot of us. We want characters we can relate to, that we can root for, and Jennifer Walters is absolutely that. Her catch phrase is “come on,” she’s a no-nonsense kind of woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone, and has a great sense of humor. I mean come on. This character is geared for success, so maybe take a step back and see how to better use her. Don’t just cancel her.
-J.: I think both of the big publishers would do themselves a world of favor if they would be more transparent with their new series. Marketing a series as “ongoing” when you know that it’s a 6- or 12-issue trial run that might be ongoing only frustrates fans. That way, you’re extending limited series, not canceling supposedly ongoing ones.
The Other Two Big Publishers
-J.: Moving on from our frustrations, what have you loved this year?
Steph: My favorite thing this year is, hands down, Rat Queens. If you know me, or have read our very first J&STAC this should come as no surprise. I will tell anyone who will listen about the awesomeness of Rat Queens. I will shout from the mountain top — if I’m ever near some mountains — about the amazing comic book that is Rat Queens. I’ve read it a dozen times and have given copies of volume 1 to about a dozen people.
-J.: She’s not exaggerating. We always have a second copy of volume 1 in our bookshelf, just in case Steph wants to give it to someone.
Steph: Which leads into the fact that Rat Queens publisher, Image Comics, has been outstanding this year. Image has been consistently putting out quality content, and some of my favorite books. Lazarus, the Wicked + the Divine, Alex and Ada, Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Saga, J.’s new interest Tooth & Claw, Revival, Black Science, Rocket Girl. The new Kelly Sue DeConnick series Bitch Planet looks very promising. Whenever J. and I sit down to think of a book to review, our first suggestions are almost always Image books.
-J.: It’s very true. I still have memories of Image Comics as the upstart company that gave the finger to the Big Two, yet became an icon of what was wrong with the industry. The old Image produced some great books, but the last half-decade has seen Image reborn as the go-to publisher of riveting and original stories. Would DC Comics or the “House of Ideas” publish anything like Bitch Planet today? I doubt it, which makes me glad that Image is around to do so.
Steph: I find myself saying, “Image is just knocking it out of the park,” constantly.
-J.: But the other mid-tier publisher, Dark Horse, has to be sweating a bit. They bring us full circle to the trepidatious relationship between comics and movies. I love a lot of what Dark Horse put out in the early ’00s, and I still love Mike Mignola’s titles. They’re one of the exceptions trying to break the episodic nature of ongoing comic book series. But Dark Horse’s single issue sales are driven by its franchise tie-ins: Avatar and Korra, the Whedon-verse, and Star Wars. As of tomorrow, they lose that last franchise and their most popular title. Because Disney and its film franchise want the canon back.
Steph: That is not surprising. If Disney isn’t interested in the decades of canon from Star Wars novels, I can’t imagine they’d want Dark Horse to keep the franchise. Especially after how much they paid for it.
To Sum It All Up…
-J: In my mind, 2014 was a mixed bag for comic books. We got a ton of cool movie possibilities, but so many frustrations with actual comic books (some of which may be connected to said movies). Image continues to expand the stories told in mainstream comics, and I’m excited to see what they do in 2015. I’m also worried yet hopeful about “Convergence,” and I’m crossing my fingers at the possibility of The God Machine coming back with volume 2.
Steph: I’d agree that 2014 was a bit of a roller coaster for comics, and what I’m most looking forward to in the new year is definitely — hands down — Rat Queens volume 2.