The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 165 | 2012: The Year in Review

Leaving Proof 165 | 2012: The Year in Review
Published on Wednesday, December 26, 2012 by
[UPDATED] Our final Leaving Proof entry for the year takes a look at some of the comics trends that defined 2012 and we list our favorite graphic novels and bound comics collections of the past twelve months. ALSO: Does violence in the media promote the incidence of real-life gun violence?

What a year in comics 2012 turned out to be for Leaving Proof: We spun-off our graphic novel and bound comics collection reviews to a separate review feature on the site, and of course there are multiple trends and themes worth addressing in today’s column, the last one for the year. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Brief notes on the Big Two

Liefeld pointed to "massive indecision" on the part of DC's editors as one of the reasons that prompted his departure from the publisher.

George Peréz and Rob Liefeld both pointed to irreconcilable creative differences with DC’s editors as the primary reasons for their departure from the publisher’s books.

DC Comics, for better or worse, kept its “New 52″ train chugging along. The novelty is starting to wear off, and the relative volume market numbers are falling back to where they were before the summer of 2011—with Marvel Comics holding a single-digit but nonetheless significant lead over their crosstown rival in superhero comics publishing—but most observers probably expected DC to have dropped the initiative by now, especially as it began to lose momentum over the summer amid the rapid turnover of key personnel and creative teams and rumor of staffer discontent started working their way around the World Wide Web. There was George Pérez leaving Superman after just six issues out of frustration with the editorial direction of the book, the nasty and sad but nonetheless entrancing (in a traffic accident sort of way) series of Twitter flameouts from Rob Liefeld in what probably amounted to professional suicide, much gnashing of teeth over the cancellation of Vertigo’s Hellblazer, universally-respected long-time Vertigo executive editor Karen Berger’s sudden resignation amid rumors of a power play by other senior executives to reclaim the mature readers line under their unified control; and of course the bizarre firing, and then reactionary unfiring, of fan-favorite writer Gail Simone on Batgirl. All the controversy and drama and dips in volume market share however, couldn’t cloud the critical and commercial success of Scott Snyder’s Batman and Swamp Thing and the consistent sales performance of Justice League.

Marvel Comics, on the other hand, slowly but surely regained volume market share it lost to DC in the last quarter of 2011, ending November 2012 with a four percent advantage over its long-time rival (34% to 30%), mostly on the strength of the sales of various Marvel NOW! titles. Whether that lead is sustainable remains to be seen, but the experienced industry observer will probably surmise that this is less market over-correction or non-sustaining artifact than it is a regression towards the status quo that has defined the Marvel vs. DC sales landscape of the past two decades. The marketing and merchandising synergy provided by the runaway box-office success of The Avengers—which has grossed over $1.51 billion worldwide at the time of this writing, over half a billion dollars ahead of Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight Rises international take—is hard to miss, and Marvel is certainly capitalizing on this by launching multiple Avengers-branded titles under the Marvel NOW! banner. From where we’re looking at things, it seems like we’re back to the pre-“New 52″ state of affairs, with Marvel and DC sharing most of the spoils (the former with a slight overall edge) in a superhero comics market that seems to have stabilized around related film production and merchandising revenues that continue to grow.

Marvel is capitalizing on the current popularity of its Avengers brand to lift its overall profile

Marvel is taking advantage of the current popularity of its Avengers brand to lift its overall profile.

The year Image Comics finally came into its own

We don’t really concern ourselves overly much with talk of The Big Two or superheroes for that matter here in Leaving Proof, though. We love capes as most funnybook fanatics do, but the current stuff isn’t really in our wheelhouse—there are many, many other commenters out there better equipped to talk about what Marvel and DC are doing right now. And that takes us to a most intriguing development from Image Comics in its 20th anniversary year. Scouring the Internet for reactions to the news of Hellblazer‘s cancellation last month, we came across the following tweet from Harvey Award-winner David Gallaher that had us reflecting on Image’s current place in the comics publishing hierarchy:

gallahertweetconstantine

"The Walking Dead" has become a runaway multimedia success for Robert Kirkman and Image Comics, with critically-acclaimed and commercially successful cable TV and video game spin-offs.

“The Walking Dead” has become a runaway multimedia success for Robert Kirkman and Image Comics, with critically-acclaimed and commercially successful cable TV and video game spin-offs to go along with the popular comic.

Gallaher’s reaction is a bit hyperbolic: As recently as November 2012, Vertigo had four graphic novels/trade paperbacks in the sales top ten. But the inroads Image has made in recent years in the graphic novel/trade paperback and non-superhero comics market is undeniable. That same month, an Image book (The Walking Dead, Vol. 17) held the top spot for graphic novel/trade paperback sales and the publisher had 41 books in the monthly sales top 300 and of those books, only three (Danger Club, Vol. 1; Witchblade: Rebirth, Vol. 2; The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, Vol. 1) could be described as anything closely resembling traditional superhero comic books. To think that this was the instantaneous result of some sort of well-timed 20th anniversary coup would be a mistake, however. The conditions have been in place for a non-Vertigo entity to supplant DC’s mature readers imprint as the go-to-publisher for creator-owned horror, fantasy, science-fiction, satire, crime, military, and alternative superhero comics ever since the mid-2000s, when then-CEO of Warner Bros Entertainment, Alan Horn, directed that the language of Vertigo and Wildstorm Comics contracts be changed to give DC Comics’ parent company greater licensing control over creator-owned IPs published under its subordinate imprints. It’s certainly no coincidence that the biggest names—Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Steven T. Seagle, Joe Casey, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Justin Gray among them—that helped solidify Vertigo’s and Wildstorm’s reputation for diverse and sophisticated comics fare stopped creating new IPs or working outright for Vertigo and Wildstorm at the time and started migrating to publishers like Avatar Press, Dynamite Entertainment, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics as outlets for their creator-owned comics work. Image’s creator-friendly conditions for publication have proven to be a powerful draw for industry veterans who want to retain the rights to their IPs in these days of the comics-based box-office blockbuster, the comics-based cable TV breakout hit, and the comics-based video game spin-off. Image Comics certainly isn’t alone in offering these terms to comics professionals, but it has a relatively strong brand and loose editorial controls (which has its share of positives and negatives) which make it a compelling choice for those looking to get their original print comics IPs noticed by the largest possible potential audience of readers and licensees. It took two decades, but Image has finally come into its own as a true alternative for both readers and comics professionals to the entrenched Big Two, offering a combination of diversity of content, creative independence, and mainstream brand cachet that is unmatched in the industry.

Meanwhile…

Dark Horse Comics kept on trucking the way it has since the mid-1980s, relying on an eclectic mix of popular licensed comics, creator-owned titles, archival collections, and translated imports from Japan and Europe to maintain its top-five position in market share through November 2012. The implications of the Walt Disney Corporation’s acquisition of LucasFilm Limited for Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics license are difficult to ignore, however. Already, rumors are circulating that Disney plans to move the creation and publication of Star Wars comics internally to Marvel (which Disney acquired in 2009) when Dark Horse’s license runs out in 2013. Star Wars has long been a pop culture blind spot for us however, so we don’t really have any strong feelings about the publisher’s loss of the license apart from worrying about the ripple effect of losing such a popular property on its other lines and titles.

Dark Horse has a unique and eclectic mix of licensed comics, creator-owned titles, archival reprints, manga, and European imports.

Dark Horse’s greatest strength continued to be its unique and eclectic mix of licensed comics, creator-owned titles, archival reprints, European imports, and manga, but the potential loss of the Star Wars license could be cause for concern moving forward.

IDW Publishing has ridden its licenses of arguably the biggest children’s pop culture properties of the 1980s into a top-five placing in market share, and its relatively rapid growth bodes well for future expansion. It has done quite well as the home for the Transformers, G.I. Joe, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony, Ghostbusters, and other licenses and it has steadily been cultivating and strengthening its creator-owned comics stable.

IDW Publishing has acquired licenses to numerous pop culture IPs and its creator-owned comics division continues to expand.

IDW Publishing has made the most of its acquired licenses to numerous pop culture IPs and its creator-owned comics division continues to expand.

VIZ Media took a gamble earlier in the year in canceling "Shonen Jump," arguably one of the best-selling comics in the US, and replacing it with the much the cheaper, digital-only weekly "Shonen Jump Alpha"

VIZ Media took a gamble earlier in the year in canceling “Shonen Jump,” arguably one of the best-selling comics in the US, and replacing it with the much the cheaper, digital-only “Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha”

Although we haven’t really covered any of their books in the Comixverse, VIZ Media’s continued presence as a significant player in Diamond’s monthly trade paperback and graphic novel sales charts is surely worthy of note. The manga importer and original comics publisher had 26 titles in the top 300 actual sales chart for November 2012. Outside of the Diamond Comics distribution network, the 2011 closure of book store chain Borders really hurt the overall market for manga in the US, cutting circulation numbers by an estimated 35% although there are strong indications that much of that lost circulation has been recovered in online sales and in surviving book store chains such as Barnes & Noble. It’s still too early to determine whether VIZ Media’s radical move to cancel Shonen Jump—arguably the best-selling “non-event” comic book in the US with circulation in excess of 125,000 at the time of its cancellation’s announcement—with the April 2012 issue in favor of replacing it with the all-digital Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha has paid off. VIZ is heavily investing in digital publishing and distribution, but there’s little in the way of reliable public data in terms of raw digital sales numbers and how those sales might be impacting and interacting with physical book sales.

Overall however, gross direct market comics revenue (unadjusted for inflation) has shown a marked improvement over that of the past few years as noted by industry blog Comichron.com.

Mark Waid and his creative partners at Thrillbent are pushing the boundaries of webcomics art while reframing many of the old arguments for and against traditional copyright protection.

Mark Waid and his creative partners at Thrillbent are pushing the boundaries of webcomics art while reframing many of the old arguments for and against traditional copyright protection.

But what of webcomics? Earlier this year, we argued that print comics publishers would do well to insinuate themselves deeper into the fabric of webcomics culture. Sure, Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Archaia Entertainment, and others have made an almost regular habit of publishing collections of various webcomics, but it still seems like they are an adjunct to the medium, and not an especially integral part of it, and that just will not do for the future of the comics publishing enterprise. Capitalizing on their relationships with webcomics creators beyond simply serving as middlemen for collected editions would serve these smaller publishers well, especially since the biggest players in the field seem either uninterested or just plain ignorant of the huge webcomic readership and the opportunities it offers for possible revenue and creative growth. As with VIZ Media, the sales performance of DC and Marvel’s digital publishing arms are hard to ascertain behind the screen of corporate secrecy, but I’d be willing to bet that all three publishers’ digital comics sales numbers for any random month combined won’t measure up to the number of unique reads a popular webcomic like Penny Arcade or xkcd racks up on any given weekday. As Empowered writer-artist Adam Warren noted in our May 2012 interview, there seems to be little overlap between print and webcomics audiences, and it just seems so strange and utterly counterproductive to us that the largest comics publishers fail to fill that gap and continue to have virtually zero presence in the free webcomics field if one doesn’t count the illegal scans posted by comics bootleggers on various file-sharing networks. The good news is, publisher reticence hasn’t kept industry veterans like Mark Waid, Greg Rucka, Mike Norton, and others from jumping into the webcomics pool and bringing their art and writing into the next stage of the medium’s evolution in terms of both platform and notions of traditional copyright protection.

Our favorite books of the year

Below, we list and link to our favorites among the numerous books we’ve reviewed and commented on over the year, ordered by the date that we covered them. These really aren’t recommendations in the review sense, just a listing of books published in 2012 that we personally enjoyed to a great degree, regardless of critical merit.

A notable back-issue discovery

Certain observers and pundits love pointing out that the comics industry is in a state of decline both in terms of commercial importance and artistic merit, but every year without fail, we always find something, whether it’s a recent back-issue or a new release, that reminds us of why we fell in love with the art form in the first place and reinforces our belief that, when done well, comics offer a type of storytelling that just can’t be matched in any other medium. All the books and titles listed above did that for us, as well as a series of books that we’d somehow avoided getting into until this year. The books are Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations (launched in 2009) of the Parker crime fiction books written by the late Donald E. Westlake under his most famous pseudonym of Richard Stark.

Darwyn Cooke's recent adaptations of the Parker books count as our favorite back-issue shelf find of the year.

Darwyn Cooke’s recent adaptations of the Parker books count as our favorite back-issue shelf find of the year.

Graphic novelizations of prose material can fail in any number of ways, but in these beautifully illustrated adaptations published by IDW, Cooke manages to keep faithful to Stark’s language, rhythms, and characterizations while still adding a unique sequential art approach to the work tinged with a strong graphic feel appropriate to the era the stories take place in. The highest praise I can offer Cooke’s work on these adaptations, as a reader familiar with the early Parker books, is that they don’t read or look anything at all like how I imagined graphic novel adaptations of the source material would be like: They read and look much, much better. If you have fond memories of the original Parker books by Stark, are a Darwyn Cooke fan, or just like good crime comics, do yourself a favor and track these titles down.

On media violence and its effects on real-world crime

Recent tragic events in the United States and the subsequent attention they have drawn from the press and various institutions have revived hoary and largely unsupported claims by prominent members of the American gun lobby about the effects of violent entertainment on gun crime rates, many of which had been previously unearthed with the furor over the Aurora shooting. Arguments for and against gun control are, of course, beyond the scope of our site and this column but anybody interested in teasing out some measure of rational and empirical evidence amidst the appeals to emotion being flung from all sides in these times would do well to study the following infographic:

21_12_12_gun_statistics_BBC

To lay the blame for US gun murders on the influence of media and entertainment is to be willfully ignorant of the fact that many of the other countries that occupy a similar position in the Human Development Index have access to the same violent entertainment that Americans are exposed to, yet their per capita gun homicide statistics are dwarfed by those of the US. In Japan’s case, some of their most popular “mainstream” cartoons (Dragon Ball Z among them) even have to be routinely edited for gore and violence before they can be shown on American network television or syndicated for cable or DVD/BD. There is too, the supreme irony and absurdity in defending the right to keep and bear arms by calling for a crackdown on the freedom of speech and expression in the form of “violent” art and entertainment.

freespeechcbldfDoes this mean then, that we think that the widespread availability of firearms is the root cause of the recent high-profile incidents of mass gun violence in the US? It’s one of the possibilities to be sure, but as with many cases of violent pathological and criminal behavior, the relationships between various factors are likely to be a lot more complex than what cursory analyses might suggest. For all we know, prohibitive gun control measures applied to a country where firearms ownership is so ingrained in the cultural identity might generate repercussions that would mitigate any immediate reductions in gun crime over the long-term. It might not be a tenable solution—if it’s a solution at all—given the American context. A federal prohibition could stimulate the growth of the underground trafficking in firearms, the same way past laws against formally-approbated-but-socially-accepted “ills” like alcohol and marijuana have had the unintended effect of expanding the black market economy for contraband and enriching smugglers and organized crime outfits.

What we do know is that given the current state of research into the effects of exposure to violent media on violent behavior, there is very little credible evidence to suggest a significant correlation, never mind causation, between the two and that any attempts to suggest otherwise flies in the face of reasoning based on current knowledge of criminal behavior and statistics, and can only be interpreted as rhetoric and deliberately misleading sensationalism meant to serve special interests rather than the facts.

That’s another year down…

This marks the end of another year of Leaving Proof, and we would like to thank each and every one of you readers for your time, attention, comments, and social media reactions. With another year of experience writing in a regular format down, things can only get better in 2013.

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