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A Baker’s Dozen of Important News Stories, 2004
posted January 2, 2005


I've only been tracking the comics industry closely for about three to five months, so I'm not really qualified to give a perspective on the year entire. I think I'll try anyway, because so much of what I do see as important news is not really covered in on-line news vehicles if any news vehicles at all.

It's always been difficult to cover a publishing industry because you have to decide how you're going to treat what I would call "publishing news" -- the what and why of a publishing industry's output. In daily reporting, there's definitely a line to be negotiated between reporting on new important titles, publishers and trends and simply playing to the hype cycle. In summary reporting, I think the difficulty is resisting the temptation to label one's own impression of the current shape of the business as important news.

Additionally, in comics I think people are so enamored of the product and in some ways too respectful and perhaps even worried about pissing off the various companies that a lot of the other founts for industry news are only lightly touched upon. Comics has several industries, really, and all of them generally yield events that are either significant of themselves -- perhaps in terms of their implications for fair treatment of creators or related issues like that -- or are specifically indicative of a larger issue very much at play.

Thus, I strongly disagree with the notion that "manga remains the story of the American comic book industry." Manga is a reality of the American comic book industry, not a story. Not anymore.

Here are my choices for important news stories of 2004, at least the ones I know about, and why:

Bill DeOre Fired in Dallas
The editorial cartoonist professions is shrinking by fits and starts, mostly due to changes in the way the business functions. Although a couple of papers actually hired cartoonists when other cartoonists left, I think the firing of the respected DeOre is worth noting because of confluence of the usual calculated economic reasons behind his severance and DeOre's relative prestige compared to others to which this has happened recently. I can't think of a more prominent member of this field affected in this way. It wouldn't surprise me, then, if there were less than ten editorial cartoonists presently what we could call completely safe from similar economic pressures. This was a chilling snapshot of a shrinking field that had in other ways seemed to stabilize in the last 50 months.

CrossGen Finally Collapses
Mark Alessi's Tampa-based company used a bizarre-for-comics full-time studio set-up that required either huge publication sales or frequent and lucrative licensing to movie studios and the like to work. It got neither, for reasons including that while Marvel Comics has as its creative heart the work of Jack Kirby in his prime, and DC the cream of the Golden Age, CrossGen was banking on a universe dreamed into existence by people who were at best high middle-rung creators at the current mainstream companies. Oddly, a number of CrossGen's properties and a few creator deals may have been salvaged by a purchase of assets for pennies on the dollar by one of the Disney companies, but mostly this is yet another crash and burn and a lot of people looking for new work or ways to make up money lost.

imageDave Sim Concludes Cerebus
The bittersweet conclusion to Dave Sim's life's work in Cerebus #300 may have also been the final chapter in the history of genre-friendly independent publishers and for a certain kind of economically viable self-publishing, self-publishing as a life philosophy. The last-chapter-feel was augmented by Jeff Smith releasing his last issue of Bone, meaning that American comic book self-publishing lost its most fervent proponent and its last great success story all in the space of a few months. While American creators will continue to self-publish, some even close to full-time, it's doubtful with the shape of the direct market that without structural changes in the system a model of full investment around a single title will ever again hold as much appeal and industry force as it once seemed likely to.

DC Backs Identity Crisis
Mainstream comic book publishers release slightly repugnant mini-series all the time; very few are pushed as their book of the year. DC's decision to put the full force of its marketing muscle behind this duller than dirt comic book series, with little to offer in the way of promising licensing, movies or spin-off characters, would seem really bizarre except that it worked, if only in the extremely limited realm of comic book market share, multiple printings and mainstream press exposure that DC seems to find so important.

Diamond Book Distributors Mounts Unlikely Comeback
What was even as recent as 18 months ago considered a kind of weak sister to other book distributors with comics clients has since smartly re-established itself as a major player and savvy corporate partner. Its most high-profile client signing among seemingly several was Marvel Comics, which came into the fold from CDS on October 1 and soon after announced a huge increase in the number of books it's offering in 2005.

Doonesbury Censored By Distributor
A southern U.S. newspaper consortium dropped Garry Trudeau's strip during its best year in two decades after a dubious quickie poll of its members, horrifying some who voted the other way. This was the first big blow against an established newspaper strip in what should be a new era of economic-driven, bottom-line curtailing of out-of-step voices, a great deal of which will be out of the hands of individual newspaper editors.

French Comics Market Surges
Comics critics in Europe released their year-end report on sales in the French-speaking BD market, and the result was a more than 20 percent surge in number of albums published. This includes a decent swelling of manga releases, and the renewed prominence of top series in bookstore markets, but what proved really remarkable is how the overall French market seemed to prosper by virtue of these increases in various categories, suggesting an integrated market that doesn't seem to exist elsewhere. In the American market, the viability of art comics like books from Pantheon did not correspond to an increase of art comics; in fact sales of the comics proper seem to have diminished. Graphic novels sales seem to have increased while comic books have stayed roughly the same across the market. Top-selling mainstream comic books seem to result in corresponding lower-selling mainstream comic books. Even Manga's overseas success belies reports of some cooling of the market back home. None of that means that thing go absolutely smoothly in the French-speaking market, with accusations of the Americanization and an increased value placed in the general dumbing-down of the art form leading stories of 2004's Angouleme Festival and generally driving gossip going into 2005's.

Highwater Books Closes Doors
imageTom Devlin's comic book company, best known for being the first publisher to recognize and give a book platform to post-alternative comics talent like those involved with the Fort Thunder artistic community, shut its doors in November after realizing that ends will likely never be met. Highwater's departure It was a strange year for alt-comics publishing health in that Fantagraphics survived its 2003 financial scare to make it to the relatively safe ground provided by their gorgeous Peanuts anthologies; Drawn and Quarterly benefited from an extended period with publicist Peggy Burns and a switch to a United States book-distribution relationship more to its liking; but on the other hand, Alternative Comics planned to curtail publishing efforts after a plea for readers to pursue their books through local comic shops yielded modest returns.

Inquirer Asks for Free Comics
The Philadelphia Inquirer asked for a period of free comics in January to help with ongoing financial costs, an almost melodramatic event showing just how tenuous the position of comic strips can be at even a major newspaper. The newspaper strip industry moves much more slowly than any world comics industry, it's my belief, so the ramifications of this event are going to be felt over a few dozens months rather than a few weeks. But really, this was ugly on the level of hearing "Maybe we should get divorced" for the first time over Sunday pancakes and then not talking about it for months and months.

Marvel's Corporate Shenanigans
Unlike many companies, Marvel's decisions as an entertainment conglomerate seem to actually have a back and forth relationship with the company's publishing initiatives. Major Marvel stockholders may or may not have manipulated stock in Spring 2004, but they definitely became aggressive in terms of rounding up specific product licensing agreements, signing a significant number of focused deals in 2004. Any companies not signed into partnership by Marvel were seemingly sued by Marvel. The company's legal forays including a suit against makers of the on-line City of Heroes game that suggests Marvel may be pursuing protection on their characters as designed by a number of attributes, which would greatly increase its ability to litigate against certain other superhero properties.

Rape of Nanjing Manga Censored
Publisher Sheisha, Inc. suspended the manga series "Kuni ga Moeru" from the pages of its Weekly Young Jump magazine after complaints from a small number of readers and a coalition of conservative politicians about its depictions of events known as the Rape of Nanjing. The political hot-button issue between Japan and China refers to a specific period of mass murder and atrocity visited upon occupied Chinese by Japanese forces in the late 1930s. Some Japanese deny it ever happened, while others deny that it was as bad as claimed by some historians and the Chinese government. At the heart of the dispute was the use of some photo references that critics believe were doctored. This was a truly depressing story.

Scholastic Announces Bone Deal; Other Companies Scramble for Bones
Although no one at the company could decide if the decision to pursue the title caem from in-house or through a previous relationship with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, Scholastic attended Comic-Con International in San Diego in part to celebrate a deal with cartoonist Jeff Smith to release a series of full-color books of his now-completed fantasy saga Bone. Scholastic's big news, seemingly a perfect marriage of product and publisher, was the eye of a hurricane of similar signings and line announcements that ranged from a promising creative line-up at Roaring Book Press to some lines where the cartoonists being pushed last work on some early 1990s Marvel comic book. At least one creator who presented himself as part of Scholastic's forthcoming line was openly telling people he hadn't done comics before. At best what seems likely is a lot of mediocre to bad books but a Risk-style invasion so deep into the heart of book publishing that the inevitable retreat fails to sweep them out the door. At worst, this flood of crap potentially screws any chance for American graphic novels to maintain its already-tenuous presence in American book market, where successes have come in individual books, not as a category.

imageSteve Geppi and Paul Levitz Named to CBLDF Board
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund said goodbye to founder and longtime Board President Denis Kitchen and hello to Top Shelf up-and-comer Chris Staros, but the biggest change was adding DC executive Paul Levitz and Diamond Distribution head honcho Steve Geppi to the Fund's board. Levitz and Geppi both have pasts that make them arguably dubious candidates as point men for free speech advocacy: DC under Levitz' watch has pulped and refused to print comics that could potentially offend; early in Diamond's ascendancy Geppi made news for his company's reluctance to distribute strong material, and a corresponding inability to see such work as coming from laudable, esteemed artists. Further, Geppi and Levitz are big-time industry folk who may have ties and responsibilities that could potentially sway how they vote and how and to what effect they make their influence felt. At the very least, their votes and impact will be closely monitored.

1. The Rape of Nanjing censorship was big international news, including wire photos like the above of a someone holdng the supposedly offensive manga.
2. Sim's Cerebus.
3. A book by Marc Bell, one of the new comics talents that made Highwater special.
4. Photo of Paul Levitz by Whit Spurgeon.