In the years that I’ve been writing for CHUD I’ve gone from a guy who
bought a lot of comics on a weekly basis to a guy who was a trade
waiter to a guy who buys almost no comics at all. I may pick up a
highly regarded trade when I need something to read, but the only book
that I actually follow anymore is Scott Pilgrim, and that is almost
over. I could attribute some of this to growing up, and certainly my
intolerance for the bullshit that is superhero comics is a side effect
of waking up one morning and deciding that being an adult isn’t the
worst thing in the world. But I don’t think I’m alone in this, and the
sales charts bear me out.

And those sales charts looked disheartening before the economy started
sliding down the shitter like a miscarried baby. Times are tough, and
the outlook remains bleak. We’re in the opening stages of a new
depression, and the realization that things are going to get a lot
worse before they get better is going to have a serious impact on
certain industries, and comics may be among the hardest hit. Superhero
comics, at any rate. And I couldn’t be any happier.

I love comic books. I love the medium as a way of telling stories; I
think that like film it’s a limitless form, one that can be used to
tell any story and in any way. The marriage of art and words is
magical, and opens so many doors for storytellers. Which is why it’s so
depressing that most of them remain closed in the world of mainstream
comics. For longer than I’ve been alive the superhero has dominated the
comic landscape; the phrase ‘comic book movie’ specifically means
‘superhero movie.’ The superhero is the face of comic books to the
general public. I don’t believe I have ever seen a medium so completely
and fully dominated by one genre before. Imagine if the vast majority
of movies available to the public were Westerns and you begin to see
what the world of comic books – mainstream comic books – is like.

And this is very, very bad. Superheroes are very, very bad. They’re
like 50 year old hookers chainsmoking on the corner: used up, their
best days behind them, appealing only to the most debased, most awful
people. The fanbase for superhero comics in this day and age tends to
be a devolved group clinging to degrading psychosexual power fantasies
that take them away from their daily powerlessness. White males on the
sidelines of society who are attached to juvenile escapades and
repetitive, stunted storytelling. I’m beginning to look at adults who
are deeply immersed in superheroes the way I would look at a grown man
eating baby food for lunch. Except that I would say the baby food guy
is at least getting some nourishment.

The continued life of the superhero comic almost feels like a
conspiracy. The direct market, in collaboration with the Big Two
publishers, Marvel and DC, has pandered to the core constituency of superhero
comics, essentially alienating everybody else. Almost feels like a
conspiracy, but I think it’s simply the fact that the Big Two are among
the worst run businesses in the country; instead of using the core,
weekly consumers as a base upon which to rely while growing their
business, they have turned to milking that base for every penny
possible, which turns off those on the outskirts of the base – shrinking that base yearly. Each
company’s attempts to reach out to new readers feels more half-assed
than the last, and Vertigo seems to be the only attempt that has borne
any fruit… a decade ago. Meanwhile, the Big Two has remained
resistant to any changes in their decades old business model; Marvel is
JUST NOW starting to sell comics on iTunes, despite it being dead
obvious that the internet was the next frontier for comics years ago.
And don’t get me started on the way DC dragged its feet on the trade
paperback front forever.

Besides pursuing business plans that has pushed away their readership
over the years, the Big Two have poisoned the well for the
medium of comics, keeping it from transcending its status as geekbait. It feels like
every time a comic comes along that stands outside the superhero genre
and tells a unique, enjoyable story through the merging of words and
pictures and gets some mainstream appreciation, one of the Big Two pull
off a stunt that gets media attention and reminds everybody that comic
books actually mean men in tights pandering to the kind of people you
hope don’t sit next to you on the bus.

The direct market has done the same. The average comic store remains
among the least friendly places on Earth for people who aren’t
interested in the dark abyss of superhero fandom. These stores have
become more and more insular, while Diamond, the company that stocks
these stores, has made it harder for independent, non-superhero books
to make it to the shelves. These independents have been waging a
guerilla insurgency for the better part of the decade, and they’ve made
remarkable headway as web comics, on Amazon and at your local
bookstore. Meanwhile, the Big Two dance at their Masquerade of the Red
Death, held weekly at Captain Mystery’s House of Atomic Secrets.

Marvel and DC have set themselves up perfectly for the bomb, and that
has come in the form of the economic crisis. As Americans lose their
jobs in record numbers, as the news looks bleaker and bleaker by the
night, the Big Two are trying to sell you 22 page monthly pamphlets for
4 bucks. Four dollars for a comic book. Many will point to Starbucks
coffee as a sign that Americans will shell out lots of dough for
something simple, but the truth is that even Starbucks has been closing
stores and are preparing a value menu. And the argument could be made
that you definitely need a coffee with two add shots a lot more than
you need a Batman comic. All of a sudden the Big Two are stuck with a
business model that was shit even when the economy was doing well.

If the economy continues its downward slide and if the Big Two don’t
make the necessary, radical changes to their business plans, superhero
comics as we know them are dead. And if things keep on this trajectory,
they could be dead in 18 months. I don’t even feel like this is a huge
leap – the mainstream comic industry has been hemorrhaging readers for
years, and while entertainment will continue to be a priority for the
consumer as the economy tanks, the consumer will be much more careful
with where that entertainment dollar is spent. It doesn’t take a
mathematician to tell you that your entertainment dollar does not go
very far with comic books; you’re better off spending that money on
video games or blu-rays. Monthly pamphlets may in fact be the single
worst value for your entertainment dollar. In the end that is what will
kill this business model.

I don’t mean that Spider-Man will go away. Superman will still exist.
Comic book movies remain big business, and superheroes sell toys and
underwear. The monthly comics feel like the appendix of the superhero
genre at this point – a primitive organ that serves little to no
function. When was the last time a really new character broke out in
the world of the Big Two? Marvel and DC just keep playing with the same
toys. Meanwhile, independent superhero comics pop up as naked grabs at
movie options, not as actual attempts to tell serialized stories. These
publishers have outlived their usefulness as property generators; each
now has a rich backlog of characters, concepts and stories that can be
mined in movies and cartoons for decades. As losses mount in the coming
months, what reason will Marvel and DC’s parent companies have to keep
them running the way they run now?

Meanwhile, Volume 5 of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim sold so well
that Amazon had to quadruple its original order. Like many other
independent comics, Scott Pilgrim is finite, and will one day live in a
collected volume that will be completely accessible to all. Unlike the
endlessly serialized nature of superhero books, these indies allow new
readers access AND closure (the continued sales of Watchmen reflect
many things, but at least one major thing is that it’s a self-contained
story that requires no further investment or knowledge than what is
within the pages of the book). And unlike the superhero books, these
comics have infiltrated themselves into places where mainstream readers
might find them easily. These books are like the little mammals and
Marvel and DC are the great huge dinosaurs who rule the Earth… for

When Marvel and DC fall (and for me it’s when, not if. I guarantee to
you that ten years from now the idea of going to a comic shop to buy
part 17 of a universe-spanning crossover event will seem as bizarre to
readers as it would be for readers today to go to a grocery store to
pick up Night Nurse), the world of comic books is going to be in
serious disarray. Local shops that haven’t already branched out into
geek interests beyond comics will be destroyed almost overnight; hybrid
stores that offer everything from video games to baseball cards and
maybe have a social element – coffee shop for instance – will be left
standing, but barely. Spider-Man will go on to star in five more
movies, and there will be some sort of comic tie-in for them, but
that’ll be tertiary marketing. The Big Two will still be publishing
something, but it won’t be monthly pamphlets in the way we know them
today – maybe we’ll get endless reprint trades and occasional new
graphic novels.

The comic world will seem like a wasteland for a while, but those
independent mammals will have positioned themselves perfectly for the
next phase. I don’t think these books will become suddenly profitable overnight; I know that many creators struggle to make ends meet while producing their books. That won’t change. People will still have day jobs and will write and draw on the side. But suddenly, without the superhero choking everything, these books will find the opportunity to grow. The artistic drive that makes people want to tell stories will continue, and a new economic model for these books will be created – hell, it’s already being created. And I don’t think that this means comic books will suddenly become an endless series of stories about being abused by your dad or about having no luck with girls; there will be adventure and science fiction and horror and romance. Getting into writing and drawing mainstream comics today is like being in a cover band – you want to do your version of Aquaman. When the superhero dies, it’s going to be like being in a garage band. You do it because you love it, because you have songs to sing. And maybe somebody will take notice and you’ll make some bucks off it. And just as it is with music today, the ways that you sell your art to people will be different. Just like bands no longer rely on Sam Goody to carry their CDs, comic creators won’t be stuck with Diamond and comic stores. Again, this has already begun.

It may take a decade or it may take a year, but eventually
the connection between superhero and comic book will fade, at least to
the point where we’re going to find ourselves in a place where the idea
of mainstream publications, critics and readers taking notice of comic
books will no longer be astonishing. When superheroes die comic books
will have finally left behind their long, ugly, awkward adolescence and
will be ready to join television and movies as mainstream storytellers.
And just as movies and television encompass many genres, it will become
widely accepted that comic books can tell stories of all sorts, for
many different audiences.

There are people who will say this is idealistic, but the truth is that
we are a visual society. We are used to having stories told to us in
pictures. The language of comic books is actually universal enough that
anybody can pick one up and understand how to read it. I honestly
believe that what is holding the medium back is the perception block
caused by superheroes, and that once comics become disassociated with
that genre things can change. The hardest work may have already been
done; books like Maus and Watchmen and Sandman have broken down many
barriers, and books like Scott Pilgrim and Ghost World have used the
opportunity to get in further. A general audience gets the idea that
the medium of graphic fiction isn’t inherently juvenile, but they
rightly believe that it usually is.

We’re close. I welcome the death of superhero comics with open arms. I
gladly bid farewell to the endlessly serialized adventures of the
members of the Justice League and Reed Richards and friends. Hopefully
the people who have made their livings creating and selling these awful
comics will be able to find new jobs and make new livings. I wish them
all the best of luck. But if there’s going to be one good thing that
comes out of this new great depression, it’s going to be the
understanding that comic books are bigger than superheroes.