Things are, in many ways, quite good in American comics. Sales stink, but the quality of the average comic book is really rather high.
It may seem a bit spoiled, in this climate, to complain that while the average book seems much improved, there isn’t a great deal of the truly great — but that’s exactly, in general, what I’m going to do.
Let’s look, in this third year of my annual address, company by company, creator by creator. What happened of note? Where are we now? And where might — or should — we be going?
Marvel has been one of 2002′s biggest winners. Its revitalization of its entire line has been a major success, and it has attracted media attention with projects such as Truth, the mini-series that gave us a black Captain America. Marvel should be praised for its MAX imprint, the first time Marvel has published mature readers comics since the demise of its Epic line that thrived in the 1980s; MAX represents a major contribution to the field by its biggest publisher. Attention is also due to Marvel’s new policy of publishing additional issues several times a year, beginning to break the old-fashioned policy of monthly books that was a response to different market — and, more importantly, for its continued pursuit of a vigorous (though not without a few complications) campaign trade paperbacks and glorious hardcovers.
On the other hand, the X-Men franchise still suffers, despite the quality of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and the more autonomous and thus more satisfactory X-Force, which became X-Statix. The Spider-Man line has fared worse, artistically speaking: for every able Tangled Web story, we have often embarrassing scripts by J. Michael Straczynski praised as somehow novel. The “U-Decide” event that launched the new Captain Marvel series, the Marville mini-series, and the Ultimate Adventures mini-series was, at best, a mixed bag. In general, Marvel is still plagued by only hitting the above average level, however much that represents an improvement: while a greater percentage of its books are readable probably than at any other point in its history, few of these books reach the level of the truly fantastic.
This is probably Marvel’s biggest long-term challenge: producing enough work of such caliber that this era of Marvel Comics can be remembered as mid-to-late 1980s DC.
Of Marvel’s books, Daredevil is probably its best. Brian Michael Bendis’s writing and Alex Maleev’s masterful art have consistently propelled the book into the level of the fantastic (outside of the three-issue arc with a fill-in artist). The Ultimates has more heat, and has also reached the same level in its writing and art, but its chronic lateness has damaged its impact; in the long run, however, it may have the greater chance of being remembered as a masterwork.
DC’s mainstream books received little artistic attention in 2002 — and for good reason. Gone are the days of Morrison’s JLA.
Jeph Loeb’s enjoyable work on Superman — problematically mixed with other, less successful Superman titles — has ended after great contributions, such as the election of Lex Luthor as U.S. President, however mixed-up was Our Worlds at War. Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee on Batman have received great sales and attention, but the quality of the work is not that of Batman: The Long Halloween. Phil Jimenez’s Wonder Woman wrapped at the beginning of 2003, a run of great artistic merit with many good ideas and terrible pacing problems that keep it from attaining the status of truly great, however good.
Surely some Marvel-like revitalization, with new talent and energy, is in order for the DC line in general.
WildStorm is to be commended for its Eye of the Storm imprint — and for creating more mature readers content, although shifting its entire line in this direction may be questionable. Its content is consistently worthwhile, even in the wake of the train wreck that The Authority became. Its Homage imprint, while often lackluster, is important for spotlighting creator-owned comics.
Vertigo in 2002 saw the end of Transmetropolitan‘s five-year run, the conclusion of a new large work of considerable fun and importance. Works like 100 Bullets continue, while the addition of Fables and Y: The Last Man have helped the line both financially and critically, delivering consistently above-average (though not always excellent) work. But with Vertigo reaching its 10th anniversary in January 2003, the creator-driven, avant-garde work that characterized its early years is still somewhat absent.
Two works of 2002, however, offer returns to form. Vertigo Pop! London, scripted by Peter Milligan with art (mostly) by Philip Bond, a four-issue mini-series launched in late 2002, was wonderful, irreverent, and truly smart fun. The Filth, a 13-issue mini-series written by Grant Morrison with art by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine, has been not only brilliant but absolutely avant-garde in tradition of the best of Vertigo.
Dreamwave in 2002 stunned the comics world by making Transformers the #1 comic book, despite being published by an independent publisher. The Transformers franchise is alive and creatively solid (despite the less satisfying Armada series that satisfies Hasbro by tying into the present toy line). Although many trash Transformers for being childish, it’s both worthwhile and important in terms of breaking the Marvel / DC duopoly. (Remember how Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did the same, leading to a slew of black-and-white comics? We may be on the verge of an indy comics toy-line renaissance.)
CrossGen is also noted for breaking the duopoly, gaining more and more market share. While CrossGen has attracted many able creators, its books are fairly disappointing and mediocre. On the other hand, CrossGen is also praiseworthy for breaking the mold of comics production, housing its creators together in Florida, paying them a salary with benefits, adding a creator-owned imprint, and, probably most importantly, putting its comics online as part of a subscription service and creating book-length anthologies. Even if CrossGen’s creative output is disappointing, it is increasingly a vital force in the comics business, producing good results by thinking outside of the box.
Dark Horse Comics, on the other hand, feels like a sinking ship, despite its many wonderful and really excellent publications by Matt Wagner, Mike Mignola, and P. Craig Russell — as well as its translation of Lone Wolf and Cub. It’s just less relevant than it used to be, and that’s a sad thing.
One of 2002′s biggest winners has been Brian Michael Bendis, whose cult has grown by leaps and bounds. Many joke that Bendis seems to write every Marvel title. If that were the case, the average Marvel book would be substantially improved. In 2002, Bendis wrote Daredevil for Marvel Knights, Alias for Marvel’s MAX line, and Ultimate Spider-Man for Marvel’s Ultimate universe, plus his creator-owned Powers for Image. Of these, Daredevil is by far the best, turning super-heroes into a remarkably well-paced story about people in new and convincing ways. Bendis’s other titles are capable, but not without problems: his Ultimate Spider-Man is certainly the worst, at best a slicker, less confused version of conventional super-hero comics, although that is his best-selling title. While Bendis’s cult is not entirely undeserved, comparing Bendis to the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Peter Milligan is presently unwarranted. Bendis has yet to create a Watchmen, a From Hell, a Sandman, or an Invisibles. But he’s no flash in the pan either. He’s worth watching, though overrated, and cannot go unnoticed in talking about the comics of 2002.
Warren Ellis, who in 1999 ascended into the pantheon of crucially important comics writers only to subsequently all but disappear, began his return in late 2002 with Global Frequency and Mek, two mini-series. They have been worthwhile but disappointing. His more avant-garde work for Avatar has been more successful creatively, if only because it has more of a classically Ellis edge to it. More Ellis self-contained mini-series are planned for 2003, as well as the return of his long-dormant and much-lauded Planetary series. Let’s hope he can recapture the magic of 1999 and further solidify his status as a major comics writer of the great caliber.
Alan Moore, undoubtedly a writer of the finest caliber, has been producing genre stories for America’s Best Comics, an imprint of Wildstorm. Promethea is of particular note, as it in 2002 nearly completed a masterful two-year, 13-issue storyline dissecting magical reality — though readers were less than thrilled. His sequel to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been slower than the first in terms of its plot, but has not failed to please. Most sadly, however, his time seems to be spent of these more simple, though not necessarily simplistic, stories rather than, say, finishing Big Numbers or creating more recitations along the lines of The Birth Caul (which Eddie Campbell could continue to adapt for comics and which, if collected together, would represent a major comics work). The other tragedy is that his work is not selling.
Neil Gaiman spent another year away from comics, his promised Marvel mini-series now scheduled for 2003 instead of 2002.
In sum, 2002 has been something of a disappointing year. Not because there was not a lot that was good — there’s more of that than ever before — but because there was not a lot that was truly great.