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Comics in 2009: Hot or Not?

by  in Comic News Comment

Did the year we just left behind fail comics fans? That’s been arguably the hottest topic among comics bloggers and critics over the past month or so. Faced with the task of assembling their thoughts about the best and worst the medium brought us in the final year of the millennium’s first decade, a great many writers say that something just wasn’t right with what they read. Others, however, say the fault may not lie with comics overall, but just with the comics the first group was reading. And ground zero for the debate is the Savage Critic(s) group blog (to which I am an all too occasional contributor).

Perhaps the strongest — and certainly the strangest — articulation of the “something went wrong in ’09” point of view was made by the inimitable critic Abhay Khosla. In a piece titled “So, Why Do Nerdy Things Work?”, Khosla took an essay ostensibly concluding a series on the pros and cons of John Rogers’s Blue Beetle run and used it as a springboard for discussing the year of his discontent. He kicked it off by assembling a round-up of similar skepticism:

I wasn’t very happy in 2009 anyways.

Apparently, I’m not completely alone: Messrs. Tim Callahan (“something’s missing”), Chad Nevett (“I think people are just tired… I can’t really defend things.”), David Brothers (“I’m bored to death”), Dr. Geoff Klock(“It’s diminishing returns… it is time to stop showing up on Wednesdays…”), Alan David Doane (“I have to admit that I have not been reading a lot of comic books lately”), and well… me in my last essay, according to some of you (“I’m pretty sure whoever wrote this comic is the Green River Killer, guys. I’ve been spending time in the crime lab, and I think I just cracked this mother wide open.”).

Khosla admits manga and alternative comics treated him fine, then focuses his dismay on superhero comics. After noting that a decade of supercomics that drew on outside influences and pulled in creators from other genres and fields nonetheless led to a landscape dotted with mega-crossovers, deaths and rebirths, gimmick covers, and similar ’90s-style shenanigans, he concludes:

Is it just we’ve all gotten too old, too jaded? That’s the answer others are settling on, but I don’t think that’s it for me. I’m the target audience for movies about robots; Transformers 2 was partially my fault. I played a video game this year because it had the Ghostbusters in it. Besides MAD MEN and the fucking amazing 3rd season of THE THICK OF IT (holy shit!), my favorite TV show right now is LOST. I am a giant nerd, and my nerdy enthusiasms are still all the way to 11. I don’t think it’s me; fuck, I wish it were me; why can’t it be me??

The amen chorus that arises in the comment thread for the post, not to mention all the similarly themed essays Khosla links to, indicate that this argument — that comics, specifically superhero comics, let their readers down in ’09 — struck quite a nerve.

But are Khosla & Co. really putting their collective finger on comics’ flatlining pulse? Or are they simply experiencing run-of-the-mill burnout based on their own reading habits? Khosla’s fellow Savage, Jeff Lester, argues for the latter. He writes:

I think I might be able to shed some light on this, since I burnt out a few years back and have been pondering the situation, on and off, since then. My take on it is simply: we just put the wraps on the greatest decade the medium has ever had here in the USA. For readers and fans of the medium, it’s the first time in memory our reach may have exceeded our grasp. Is it any wonder the people following the medium may be a little exhausted and fatigued?

To put it another way: if you were a fan of candy, and you ended up locked in the biggest candy store in the world, and were able to eat as much as you wanted, would you then turn around later, and blame the candy for not tasting as good as when you were first locked in? Would you suggest something had clearly gone wrong later in the candy production process since the stuff you were eating now was making you feel ill but the earlier candy hadn’t? Obviously, aesthetic experience doesn’t map to sensual experience in such an easy one-to-one way but aesthetic oversaturation is possible as anyone who’s been to Burning Man or the Louvre will tell you.

The latest Savage to weigh in, David Uzumeri, may or may not agree with Lester’s read on things. The main takeaway from Uzumeri’s post on the topic is that, quite frankly, he’s having none of the idea that this was a lousy year for comics because so many of the comics he read were just too damn good:

This current trending topic, about how 2009 was a lame year for comics (especially superhero/mainstream/adventure comics), just doesn’t resonate with me at all. I enjoyed a huge amount of comics this year, many of which were from creators I really didn’t expect to become such an ardent fan of, and while most of my non-superheroes comic reading was either manga or stuff released previous to 2009, it all still coalesced into a year of reading really fantastic comics.

After running down the non-superhero books he enjoyed, a group fueled by his discovery of manga this year, Uzumeri goes on to take issue with the notion that superhero books were in fact uniquely dispiriting this year at all:

Even outside of my wheelhouse of superheroes, I had a really great year pushing my boundaries past the stuff I usually read. But this is what people are complaining about, isn’t it: that the shared-universe superhero comics aren’t holding their interest anymore, that they’re going to MOME or Prince Valiant reprints or Johnny Ryan or Daniel Clowes or Naoki Urasawa or Kate Beaton or whatever for their fix.

And I don’t get that at all.

2009 was, for me, a banner year for superhero comics.

Final Crisis, Green Lantern, Ghost Rider, Punisher, Batman & Robin, Seaguy, Detective Comics, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Invincible Iron Man, DC’s Superman line, Marvel’s cosmic line — all are singled out by Uzumeri for praise.

Full disclosure: I side with the optimists on this one. For one thing, as Lester pointed out, it’s no surprise when after years of consuming a particular kind of art — and with superhero comics, we can be talking “since elementary school” in many cases — your tastes change and your interests diverge. For another, writing off manga, alternative comics, and the like in an aside, as does Khosla, mightily stacks the deck. If you find your nerd buttons aren’t being pressed by Blackest Night and Dark Reign, surely 20th Century Boys or The Abominable Charles Christopher or The Mourning Star have a chance of fitting the bill. It’s a big medium out there. Or as Sean Witzke succinctly tweeted:

Just because YOU have nothing to say doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to say. It means you’re burnt out. Buy some manga, shut up.

I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but point taken.

And finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, like Uzumeri I disagree with the idea that superhero comics were spectacularly bad this year as opposed to any other year. There’s always plenty of dreck out there, and perhaps the whole “line-wide direction” publishing model increases your chances of coming across a lot of stuff you don’t care for (though it could obviously work the other way too). But speaking conservatively, surely there are half a dozen superhero books out there that can be enjoyed on their own terms, offering different flavors of the genre to those who crave them. My fandom doesn’t date back to childhood necessarily, but I’m still a pretty big superhero nerd, yet I’m also a pretty big snob — and from Invincible to Invincible Iron Man, B.P.R.D. to Batman & Robin, I was able to find and enjoy superhero comics that threaded that needle admirably. And that’s to say nothing of everything else I loved this year, from Pluto to Pim & Francie.

So what do you say, Roboteers? Did 2009 rock your world or leave you flat?