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Six things in comics I’m thankful for

by  in Comic News Comment
Six things in comics I’m thankful for

Thursday at this time, many Americans will be digging in to their bountiful Thanksgiving dinner or, depending upon the time zone, blissfully enjoying a tryptophan coma. Feasting isn’t the only tradition, however: There’s also the custom of giving thanks, hence the holiday’s name.

With the end of the year approaching, it seems like a good opportunity to reflect on the state of comics, and celebrate what’s working. Sure, this crazy industry can be frustrating at times, but it also gets a lot of things right. So in keeping with the numerical motif of our namesake, here are six things in comics for which I’m thankful.

1. Image Comics is killing it

There are a lot of fantastic comics today. It’s been said a number of times by myself and others but it’s so fun to repeat: We are living in a new renaissance period for comics. I don’t think there’s ever before been such a sustained output of quality books. You can’t reasonably give credit for that to one publisher, but if we’re just looking at the major players in the direct market, Image Comics is just killing it this year. I don’t think they’ve ever had such a stellar line-up of quality creators putting out books that look fantastic, have great hooks to them, and stand on their own as solid entertainment.

Just take a moment to think back 20 years to Image’s 1993 roster: That was the year of the unfinished Darker Image miniseries and the debut of Jim Lee’s StormWatch. Sure, there were standouts like Alan Moore and company’s 1963 (also never completed) and Sam Keith’s The Maxx, but for the most part it was night and day compared to today. Of course, the entire industry has really changed, with different storytelling techniques and a greater diversity in genre — but I don’t know if there’s any other publisher from those days that has evolved more.

Yes, we all know Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead, which had the biggest-selling single issue of the year. Yes, everyone loves Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga. What seems like a who’s who of the best and brightest in mainstream comics have followed them, people like Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Steve Epting, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Matt Fraction and Rick Remender. And it feels like they’re not playing it safe. They’re going with what they want to make no matter how off-market it may seem. A time-jumping noir horror willing to leave you confused? OK, here’s Fatale. An R-rated sex comedy? Enjoy Sex Criminals. Weird Western whatever? Get your Pretty Deadly. There’s plenty of more straight genre stuff, too, but it feels as if there’s a creative momentum there I’ve never felt before. They’re creating comics for the sake of comics. It also doesn’t hurt they’re making it all available as DRM-free digital comics, a bold move no other major comics publisher has made.

2. Fantagraphics is loved

Within days, comics fans rallied around Fantagraphics to help raise $150,000 to fund its 2014 spring season, and with a week remaining in the campaign, the publisher is on the cusp of hitting its stretch goal of $200,000. After the heart-breaking passing of co-founder Kim Thompson earlier this year, and the subsequent financial problems caused by the delay of the active editor and translator’s books, it’s been so wonderful to see this wave of support.

It’s certainly hard to argue with the line-up of Fantagraphics’ spring season. Of course there are the marquee books like The Complete Peanuts Vol. 21: 1991-1992. There is less than a decade of material to go on reprinting the entirety of the Peanuts comic strip, and just five volumes left; we can’t stop now. There’s also new Eleanor Davis, more Jacques Tardi, Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree continued, and so much more.

Fantagraphics long ago set the bar on production quality, design, and a stubborn insistence on a high level of quality on the cartoonists it publishes. There was a risk that the publisher would have to find investors, so it’s heartening to see the company find a new way to stick to its guns that relies instead on readers. A compromised Fantagraphics probably isn’t Fantagraphics at all.

3. Graphic novels and manga are on the comeback

The book market hasn’t had as good a time as digital comics or comic stores over the past couple of years, but at last it looks to be improving. Barnes and Noble even posted a decent profit for last quarter, which is a welcome change of news (even if there are some caveats in there). The bookstore chain looked to be heading the way of Borders, but it seems as if that path has changed, for now.

My excitement probably has something to do with graphic novels (or trade paperbacks, or whatever you want to call them; comics with bookshelf binding) being my preferred way to read these days. But it’s an important outlet that serves comics well to stay healthy. For readers that prefer physical objects but aren’t near a comic store, it could be the only chance they have of stumbling across comics.

The resurgence of manga is also excellent news, and a relief after a number of years of troubling decline. Perhaps the consolidation following the boom is over and that arena can start to grow again. Manga still provides a lot of stories and ideas completely unseen in North American comics otherwise, and it would be a huge loss if they continued to dwindle.

4. Political cartoonists in other countries are warriors

It seems every day there’s some story about political cartoonists in the Middle East vanishing or being pressured by their country’s political power. It’s so easy to take certain freedoms for granted. I can’t imagine living without them, and I am in such awe of those that continue despite the risks.

Zapiro is regularly making various powers-that-be in South Africa uncomfortable. Sometimes he’s sued, sometimes he triggers international incidents. So far he hasn’t ended up in jail. The same can’t be said for cartoonists in Turkey, where they fear police showing up at their door. Wang Liming has had to deal with Chinese police and Internet censorship due to his cartoons. In Malaysia, Zunar was arrested and copies of his book Cartoon-o-Phobia seized due to a claim of sedition. Akram Raslan was abducted from the offices of his newspaper and vanished within the Syrian prison system, with rumors circulating that he may have been executed or died while being tortured.

Obviously the price these cartoonists pay is nothing to be thankful for, but the fact that many of them fight on is amazing. Political cartooning in the United States is generally pretty tame. Its influence peaked long ago, but in other countries it’s a vital and powerful method of protest and commentary. I’m thankful they fight on.

5. Kids have comics aplenty to read

This may not exactly be news any more, but there was such a long drought of comics you’d feel comfortable handing to a minor that I need to celebrate it again: The kid-friendly output of Marvel and DC may never be what I’d like, so it’s a good thing there are others who make up for that. The comics landscape is bright for younger readers today.

I was most recently reminded of this after seeing the preview for the first issue of IDW’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Sholly Fisch and Jorge Monlongo’s take on the classic Jay Ward characters already seems more authentic than the upcoming movie. IDW Publishing and BOOM! Studios seem to have discovered the secret formula to making entertaining and successful all-ages comics: bring in creators that actually enjoy the property and actually care about making it a good comic. Crazy, radical thinking, I know.

They’re far from the only game in town though. Toon Books regularly wins praise from school and parenting magazines and websites for their utterly charming books. Nearly every publisher now devotes at least part of their catalog to minors. In fact, there’s so much of it these days, you could run a comic book store with just this material. And The Beguiling did just that.

6. comiXology has e-gift cards

I’m seriously considering asking for nothing but comiXology e-gift cards for Christmas. And my birthday. And Flag Day.

It might seem like a small thing but I consider this an important step in digital comics being as convenient as possible. When iTunes started selling gift cards, it didn’t take too long for a multitude of retail stores to start offering them. Now it seems like you can find them in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations. iTunes gift cards can be used for more than just music, and it’s that multipurpose that no doubt helped them become so prevalent.

I’m not expecting comiXology gift cards to start popping up in 7-Eleven, but the easier it is to give someone digital comics, the better. I’m kind of surprised it took them this long to roll this out but I’m glad it’s hear and the interface looks great.

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