2016 took a lot from all of us. For a while, I considered publishing this year in review with just that first sentence and letting it stand as a testament to how shitty this year has been. Comics was hit by the same toxic tsunami that flooded this calendar year. We lost friends, we grew increasingly uncertain about the future, and we watched as common sense and decency lost ground to paranoia, cruelty, and a refusal to acknowledge each other’s basic humanity.
For me, the biggest story of 2016 was who we lost. Comics lost several great talents this year, including Darwyn Cooke, Steve Dillon, Alvin Buenaventura, John Caldwell, Jack Davis, Gaspar Saladino, and Richard Thompson. Cooke and Dillon helped create several of the most influential mainstream comics of the modern age. Buenaventura published a slew of extraordinary small press books via Buenaventura Press and Pigeon Press, Caldwell and Davis delighted millions with their work on Mad Magazine, Saladino was an iconic letterer responsible for the concept of character-designated fonts, and Thompson’s Cul de Sac was the best newspaper comic published since Calvin and Hobbes. Each changed the comics medium in their own way and will be missed greatly.
For Marvel and DC, 2016 was business as usual. Both companies saw a mixed slate of successes and failures, as their respective properties continued to dominate both the big and small screens. In what has seemingly become an annual event, both DC and Marvel “relaunched” their respective superhero lines, flooding the marketplace with new #1 issues in the hopes of boosting sales.
DC abandoned their diverse but undermarketed “DCYou” line in favor of a slimmer line that “returned to basics”. In exchange for bringing back a married Superman and Green Arrow with a goatee, DC began shipping many of their top books bi-weekly, which (at least in the short term) boosted their sales.
Marvel took a much more scattershot approach to their sales, by releasing approximately 80 new ongoing or limited series last year. While it seemed like Marvel had published a comic for everyone at some point, many of these comics were crowded out of the marketplace by Marvel’s many other new comics, resulting in more than a few critically acclaimed series meeting untimely cancellations. Marvel’s most recent relaunch “Marvel NOW” stuttered somewhat due to delays to Civil War II, which was supposed to kickoff the new event but has yet to finish by the end of this year.
DC also launched an ambitious new slate of books under the stewardship of My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way. These “Young Animal” series were deliberately framed as a spiritual successor to the classic Vertigo series featuring established DC characters and set within their own weird corner of the DC universe. Unfortunately for DC, the firing of longtime editor Shelly Bond (who played a major role with both the Vertigo and Young Animal lines) led to renewed scrutiny by critics who wondered why a high ranking female employee like Bond was laid off while retaining Eddie Berganza after several instances of alleged sexual harassment in the past, albeit incidents that were eventually addressed internally by DC/Warner Bros HR at some point.
The Berganza controversy was just one of several uncomfortable discussions that took place in and around the comics industry last year. It would be a bit depressing to run through every instance of “bad behavior” or time where comics fell short this year, but there were many and usually at the expense of women and minorities. 2016 showed that comics, especially those involved with the mainstream superhero and genre publishers, still has plenty of growing up to do. The audience, talent pool, and footprint of comics has changed from where it was even as a decade ago. It’s baffling how many people treat a multibillion dollar industry like a Vegas vacation, acting as if grossly unprofessional behavior has no consequences. Comics needs to continue to diversify its hiring habits, protect those vulnerable to poor behavior, and not kowtow to the aging and increasingly out of touch fans of yesteryear.
Outside of the quagmire that is monthly superhero books, a burgeoning secondary comics scene continues to grow. It’s probably a bit unfair to lump in webcomics, traditional alt-comics, countless small press books, and a growing graphic novel scene together, but it really feels like there are two “mainstreams” in comics now. There’s the Comic-Con driven superhero and genre scene where books are picked up for movie and TV options, and a growing scene built around shows like MOCCA, TCAF, and SPX. Comics is one medium with two (or more) very different scenes that only occasionally intersect.
This “new mainstream” had a pretty amazing year. Raina Telgemeier continued her domination of the New York Times Bestseller list with another new graphic novel. March became the first comic to win a National Book Award. Fantagraphics celebrated its 40th anniversary, a gold standard for alt-publishers everywhere. Ngozi Ukazu raised nearly $400,000 to publish a second collection of the queer webcomic Check Please. Zainab Akhtar moved away from comics criticism and into publishing, starting a monthly “Short Box” mailing filled with amazing alternative and small press comics. Tillie Walden released some amazing comics, as did Katie Skelly, and Lisa Hanawalt, and Noah Van Sciver, and hundreds of other great creators. Putting aside the nonsense and distractions and awfulness, there were a lot of great comics published this year.
So what happens next? Honestly, I have no idea. I hope that people find more peace in 2017 than last year. I think 2016 had everybody on edge, and those feelings often bubbled over into really bad discourse and frustrations about comics as a whole. I can’t tell people in good conscience to “be more positive” or “find common ground with those you disagree with”, but I can recommend self-care. Walking away from something that brings you anxiety or pain isn’t admitting defeat, and comics will still be around if you need to take a break. Comics can be an exhausting scene to be a part of, but the medium it
In summary: 2016 sucked, but there were plenty of good comics that came out. Hopefully 2017 will be better, but at least we’ll always have the memory of the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA Finals to sustain us through these dark times.