As 2023 was drawing to a close, there was much public discussion about what was needed in order to 'save' the comic book speciality marketplace, with much of that commentary coming, unusually, from professionals inside that industry itself. Famously, former Marvel heavyweight Mark Millar suggested that big name creators returned to Marvel and DC, saying that “excitement is contagious. Big names on big characters is a very fun idea.” That led other creators to respond, including Scott Snyder’s contention that a shift also needs an idealogical shift inside the publishers and amongst the readers alike to truly land. While specific prescriptions for the problem differed, one thing appeared to be agreed upon: something needed to change, and quickly. So, as 2024 rolls around, the obvious question is: what happens now?
What about the 'Dawn of DC'?
Something that should be considered is that there’s an argument to be made that DC has been attempting a variation of what some have been demanding for the past year already, courtesy of the Dawn of DC initiative: a focus on the big name characters with the biggest creators at the company today. That’s been a success for DC, and has certainly raised DC’s profile inside the existing comic book market — but this hasn’t been noted by those who believe that “big names on big characters” will change the industry. Why not?
Part of it might be that 'Dawn of DC 'didn’t shift things enough for that audience — they wanted something with the impact of, say, 2011’s 'New 52' relaunch that re-established DC as the biggest publisher in the business at least temporarily — and, possibly, another might be that the big names that are part of the Dawn of DC initiative aren’t who those demanding this kind of thing think of as “big”; I keep coming back to Mark Millar’s initial suggestion of this idea and his mentioning Joss Whedon and John Byrne as the kinds of talents necessary to make this happen, suggesting an attitude rooted as much in nostalgia as anything else… and a desire that will never be satisfied because of practical reasons.
(For example, John Byrne has quit making comics, and even if he hadn’t, he’s literally not the same creator that he was 40 years ago.)
Nostalgia vs. new voices
My attention turns to something that Grant Morrison wrote in a recent newsletter. (Another veteran of the old days!) Asked how they’d fix the industry, Morrison argued, “It’s for a younger generation of creators to ‘fix’ what seems broken to them,” adding, “Comics like pop music, relic on fresh voices to sing the old standards in a way that resonates with a new audience!” That might be the answer to re-energizing Marvel and DC in terms of sales, if not the vocal minority of those wishing Joss Whedon came back to comics — the idea of finding new voices that resonate with readers in such a way as to build a new audience that will, ideally, grow to sample other comics and become voracious readers across the board.
It's not either/or, it's both
Perhaps the true solution is a combination of both approaches: bringing back big name creators for top-tier characters, while building a new generation of creators creating new voices for a new audience on other books throughout the line, simultaneously, with an eye to those creators inheriting the top titles in time — leaving space for the next generation of creators to come in as the new(er) voices, and so on. It’s a simple theory, and one that should be workable in practice… but in order for it to truly succeed, a bigger change needs to occur than any publishing or editorial initiative: comic book readers (and creators!) need to become more open to something other than their own needs and desires when it comes to their favorite characters.
Just imagine an industry where publishers had the freedom to create the kind of experimental work that fans consistently dream of returning to, without having to cater to fans who demand the kind of work that was experimental decades earlier! No, that would never work; what am I thinking? After all, if all it took to revitalize the comic book industry was new and experimental reading, then surely more people would be reading books put out by Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Vault Comics, Mad Cave Comics, and any number of publishers not structured around characters created half a century ago if not before that... (See also the obvious question: why do people always look to Marvel and DC to save the industry?)
Will Marvel and DC respond to suggestions (and in some cases, demands) from social media to cater to fans’ whims and grow market share as a result in 2024? It’s arguably too early to say, but one thing is for sure: any year that sees polybagged alternate editions with more violence and “explicit content” labels as a sales tactic suggests that almost anything is fair game by this point.
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