I have a rant and then a rave. First, let me go on record as saying that I like superhero comics. I really do. I’ve been reading them for years and I’ll continue to read them. There is some great stuff being done in the genre. It’s just that there are… so many of them.
They crowd the shelves of the comic book specialty shops, shelf after shelf, row after row, title after title; an endless procession of teeth-gritting, brow-furrowing, muscle-popping, ridiculously costumed and stupidly named second and third string characters smashing and bashing their way through mind-numbingly repetitive stories month after month… AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!
It’s not that that’s bad in itself. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of comics in any form, so you would think my attitude would be “the more the merrier”, but this overwhelming dominance of superhero comics is not a good thing. What essentially should be a niche genre (and is, in other countries where comics are popular, like France, Italy and Japan) has been the essence and substance of the American comic book mainstream for 50 years. It’s one of the main reasons comics are disrespected as a valid art form in the US; it has stifled the growth of the medium; and worst of all, kept some of the most creative and talented voices out there from being heard by anything but a tiny audience. Yes, occasionally exceptions, like Jeff Smith’s Bone, will actually break out and reach a wider audience, but these are rare.
The problem with the dominance of the mainstream superhero comic “products” (and that’s what they are to the people who own these companies, make no mistake) is that they crowd everything else off the shelves. In a field that relies on small, usually independent, comic book specialty shops for most of its distribution network, it doesn’t take much to fill up the shelves, and the shop owners’ purchasing budget, with the reams of poor quality second string superhero titles the big companies keep pumping out; which, of course, is exactly what they’re for. This is a deliberate and calculated policy on the part of the large comic book companies to stifle competition (the latest insane expression of which is the attempt by Marvel and DC to jointly trademark the generic term “superhero” so smaller companies can’t use it).
So the wonderfully varied and imaginative work of hundreds of talented independent comics creators, work that has a real potential to change public perception of the medium and dramatically expand the audience and market for comics in general, is suppressed by the mainstream companies while they fight over shelf space in their tiny superhero market ghetto. Brilliant.
Meanwhile, out in the creative hinterlands, where the aforementioned independent comics creators toil in obscurity, wonderful things are happening. Independently created webcomics, unrestrained by the narrow minded mainstream comics distribution system, are growing like crazy, creators are being noticed and voices are being heard. Delightfully, some of this creative explosion is making its way into print and actually showing up on the comic book shelves next to the latest issue of The Ultimate, Amazing, Spectacular Spider-clone.
Another exceptional breakout is trying to happen, this time with multiple creators in an anthology book, a comics format that has a notoriously poor track record but is somehow working this time. Kazu Kibuishi, one of those wonderful independent comic creators I keep telling you about, has been quietly starting a revolution with an experiment that has grown into a series of terrific anthology books that do exactly what needs to be done; using the very variety and quality of these independent creator’s voices to support one another. Each of the previous editions of Flight, Flight 1 and Flight 2, have showcased a number of wonderfully talented comics creators with unique voices, styles and things to say. By putting them together, the Flight anthologies have made a proverbial whole greater than the sum if its parts that demonstrates some of the potential out there.
The latest volume, Flight 3, is due in June. If you shop at a comics specialty store, you can go there now and pre-order it. You can also order it from your local independent bookshop (if you’re lucky enough to still have one), chain bookstore, or Amazon.
Flight 3 promises to be the best, most varied and most enjoyable volume yet and you can get a nice taste of it in advance courtesy of the Comic Book Resources site, which has put up a multi page preview of dozens of beautiful pages that you can view online. The preview is in two parts, part 1 here, and part 2 here. (Images above, from top: Johane Matte, Rodolphe Guenoden, Paul Harmon.)
If you thought comics are not for you because you’re just not into the whole teeth-gritting, knuckle bashing, spandex tights superhero thing; or even if you already enjoy superhero comics (as I do, remember), but are just curious about what else is out there in the way of new, different and creative comics, here’s a great place to start.