Comics let me down all the time.
But that’s to be expected, I basically live, breathe, eat, and sleep comics and when you’re that saturated in something it’s bound to let you down from time to time.
I was reading the (it must be said, excellent) Unbeatable Squirrel Girl the other day and I was struck by something that really used to disappoint me about comics that has shifted dramatically, at least from where I’m sitting (and what I was reading).
It used to be all but impossible to publish a superhero book unless the lead was a marquee hero. Sure people tried it from time to time and sometimes it even worked for a while, but it always felt like this huge gamble. And launching a new comic is admittedly always a gamble, but now it feels like a calculated risk instead of betting the entire farm.
I was thinking about the kind of things that have happened in recent years to make Unbeatable Squirrel Girl possible as a hit book that I love and others apparently love too (note: admittedly it’s harder than ever to figure out what book numbers actually are since digital remains frustratingly difficult to count for reasons inexplicable to me, but you can bet that Unbeatable Squirrel Girl would not be announced as renewed post Secret Wars if it wasn’t performing well). So while thinking about Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and why it’s possible as a success today I saw a tweet from my friend and comrade in arms Sue (DC Women Kicking Ass) asking her followers what they felt was the most influential comic of the decade. She got a lot of great answers but I had two favorites that relate very much to what we’re discussing. First, Faith Erin Hick’s vote for Raina Telgemeier’s Smile because it “proved publishers should rethink the whole ‘comics for girls’ thing, or be left in the dust.” And also @SidizenKane ‘s suggestion of Ms. Marvel because it “cemented change as the new status quo.”
I agree with and like both those answers a great deal. And even though those books did similar things by showing that the market was changing, they did it in slightly different arenas. Smile proved -- with its awards and New York Times Bestseller dominance -- to more “literary” circles that sometimes don’t think of our wonderful monthly comics as worthy, that the market was serious, was changing, and was worth considering and going after. And Ms. Marvel because it’s showed that it IS possible to do unexpected books even at our beloved “Big Two” and in a niche field of sorts (superheroes) that has generally been very slow to change its approach.
Years ago Sue and I interviewed the charming and talented writer Marjorie Liu on our 3 Chicks Podcast. We talked about many things including the comics market and Liu noted that she thought it was going to take a game changer to really signal to comics publishers that things were changing and that they needed to evolve in order to keep their audience and better, to capture the new emerging ones. So maybe Smile and Ms. Marvel were those game changers?
Comics (like most worthwhile media) take a long time to create so you can’t exactly see change overnight. So maybe we just didn’t quite notice that the change already happened? I mean, we were all very excited about the things we were seeing – there was so much excitement in the air – but we didn’t exactly go to the shop the following week and marvel at the changes we saw on the shelves. But maybe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and its success…and the fact that it even made it through the pitching/publishing gauntlet was a direct result of “game changers” like Smile and Ms. Marvel?
And I could be wrong, but it does feel as if something like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, even done exactly (and as excellently) as it is now, wouldn’t have been published five years ago….it’s the kind of book that probably never makes it through the pitch stage…Squirrel Girl WHO? You know what I mean? But in the age of a 100% new character like Kamala Khan stepping into the role of Ms. Marvel and that book being: a New York Times Bestseller, a fan favorite, critically acclaimed, and award winning (it picked up The Hugo this weekend and is already nominated for Eisners and Harveys) well, everything has changed and so we get to read Unbeatable Squirrel Girl every month and marvel at the magnificence, marvel at the change in our industry even without realizing it.
And I’m not trying to be naïve, we've still got lots o’ problems in comics. Even on this specific issue we have problems – good, interesting, non-traditional books are still cancelled all the time (She-Hulk, I will weep for you forever, my love!). But what feels like a combination of new audiences, a shifting market, some significant successes with “non-traditional” books and “non-traditional” heroes, good old fashioned innovation, and some significant industry game changers have left us with a far more interesting comics landscape than we had even five years ago at the Big Two (while I think Smile and Ms. Marvel and books like them have also affected the non-Big Two market in positive ways, it's probably deserving of it's own post).
Now it actually feels like books that never would have made it out of development due to fears that they wouldn’t find an audience at least get a chance. Sometimes they still can’t survive in the marketplace, but now a book with a lot of perceived “slights” against it are worth the risk because maybe they’re the next Ms. Marvel or Smile, or...Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is chock full of things that might have previously been considered red flags: a highly cartoony style, a female lead, a not “traditionally attractive” female lead, a supporting cast of “nobodies”/new characters, an all-ages friendly approach, and marquee guest appearances that really are guest appearances only. Now, in fairness, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is particularly masterful in its execution (and truly funny) so even books that embrace these once “forbidden” ideas can’t all be as good as Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, but still, the success and excitement over this book (and books like it) suggests that the old guard may finally be changing, that we are indeed entering a brave new comics world of sorts.
I, for one, am happy to have Squirrel Girl, a character I did not give two craps about eight months ago and now rabidly love, as one of the awesome heralds of this brave new world. Lead on, hilarious lady, lead on!
Kelly Thompson is the author of the novels “The Girl Who Would be King” and “Storykiller.” She’s also the writer of IDW’s “Jem and the Holograms,” the Graphic Novel “Heart in a Box,” and co-writer of Marvel’s “Captain Marvel & the Carol Corps.” Gifs are her favorite thing ever, well, that and never getting out of her pajamas. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter is easiest: @79semifinalist