First things first: this article is not about superhero movies. It’s about their source material, comics.
The market size for the US comic book industry stands at 1.03 Billion USD as of 2015. That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s peanuts to how much superhero movies make these days. The Avengers alone grossed $1.5 billion during its release.
The US comic book industry has grown at a CAGR of 4.7% since 2008. That’s when the current phase of superhero movies started with Iron Man and The Dark Knight getting released. Before that, however, the industry grew at a much faster CAGR of 12.6% from 2000-2008. Clearly, the popularity of superhero movies hasn’t helped their source material all that much.
The land of comics is a sprawling wonderland, that’s about much more than just superheroes. What initially started out as a medium catering mostly to children has evolved to become so much more.
As good as The Killing Joke is, at least 20 comic books come out every year which are just as good, if not better. Very few of them are going to be greenlit for the big screen though, and that’s okay. Most of them, however, are bursting with creativity.
What You Need is Love
While monthly comics sales can peak as high as a million, sales around the 100,000 range is a comfortable success for most books. In fact, many independent, creator-owned comics survive on a monthly sales run of 5000 or less.
Writer Jim Zub did a revenue breakdown using this 5000 sales estimate. Even without any advertising costs, a writer or artist gets only $31.25 per page. And that’s without factoring in others like inkers, colorists and letterers, which splits the proceeds even further.
Taking that $31.25 page-rate means you get around $600 per book. So if you are a small time comic book writer with only one monthly book, here’s where you stand on the totem pole:
You need a lot of passion and love for the medium to make a living in this industry. In fact, Jim Zub referred to writing comics as the most expensive hobby he’s ever had.
You need a lot of passion and love to make a living in the comic book industry.
A Smaller Industry Means Lesser Constraints
Modest sales and meager margins mean that there’s less pressure to meet the bottom line. Mind you, several series are cancelled every month, but at least they get until 8 issues of breathing space before that.
It’s the Big Two- Marvel and DC- which cancel their titles most often. Editorial interference can also get ugly. Both of them have been following an event-based business model for the last decade or so. This means that there’s a huge story every year designed to drive up sales. These events integrate almost all of the separate books into their stories and thus can often disrupt the natural flow of those individual stories.
Even with this kind of complications, writers and artists get considerable leeway in the Big Two. Comics featuring characters like Captain America and Batman are often better than their movie adaptations. This is because often the writer and the artist have full reins over creative decisions. There are only two cooks, not too many. There are even less boundaries for creator-owned comics, where the creators share the profits and losses with the publishers.
A Smaller Readerbase Allows for More Experimental Storytelling
There is also lesser need to appeal to the widest possible demographics. Though comic readers have diverse tastes, most of them fall in the 20-30 years age range. Previously, they also used to be overwhelmingly male, but recent surveys suggest that 46.67% of the reader base is currently female.
Alan Moore (left) and Grant Morrison (right) brought their own sensibilities that mixed pop culture and literary influences into comics.
Most creators are keen to express their personal visions and sensibilities through their work. They are following on the footsteps of early revolutionaries such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Throughout the 80s and 90s, they told mature, complex stories that challenged their readers instead of insulting their intelligence.
Compression: More Story in Less Space
As a medium, comics possess an incredible advantage by serving as an intermediary between pure text and motion pictures. It takes a lot less time and space to progress the narrative forward in comics than either of those mediums.
Watchmen and its movie adaptation can be used to compare this pretty effectively. See how one scene plays out in the comics and the movie:
To maintain a smooth pace, the movie cuts out a lot of details. If it tried to include all of them, the end result wouldn’t have been as good. To be fair, movies do have the advantage when it comes to acting and ambience.
Comics are an ideal medium for conveying a lot of ideas and weaving in intricate plots. You can go for a lot of narrative or visual density, or both as in the case of Moore and Morrison. This can sometimes overwhelm character nuance, but good writers can still find wiggle room to pepper in character moments here and there.
Comics are great at conveying lots of ideas and weaving in intricate plots.
The pacing is a lot more fluid and flexible in comic books compared to movies. If you try to convey the same amount of information in a movie, you run the risk of overwhelming the audience. This is partly why movies like Batman v Superman have garnered criticism. They do a bad job of juggling too many plot elements and themes at once.
The Counter Point: Decompression
In the late 90s, comic books actually borrowed a leaf or two from movies with the advent of decompressed storytelling. The first example of this is Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority. Hitch used the term ‘widescreen action’ to describe his penchant for cinematic panoramas.
Decompression also brought a greater emphasis on character moments and visual interactions. In the mid and late 2000s, this often came at the expense of plot and pacing. Fortunately, most books now balance plot and character moments effectively.
It’s not really the technique which causes problems, but rather the skill and aptitude of the creators. For instance, check out these pages from Planetary, also written by Warren Ellis:
There’s so much creativity and attention to detail in those wordless panels. I call comics like these idea bullets. They convey a wealth of ideas in very little space.
Long Form Storytelling Excels
In comics, you often get to see complex long-form narratives take shape in real time. Keeping up with franchise novels is hard, because readers often have to wait for years between the next installment. With comics though, you get a little piece of the story almost every month. The joy of seeing all those pieces coming together to form a beautiful whole is palpable.
Creator Owned Comics
In creator owned comics, the writer stays onboard for the whole ride. He/she gets as much as time as he/she wants to tell a complete story. Take the Walking Dead, for instance, which has been ongoing since 2003. It’s a cleaner, focused narrative than its TV counterpart. While it has individual story arcs, as a whole it’s greater than the sum of its parts.
The Big Two
Even in mainstream comics, creative teams often stay on for many years. They do their own take on established characters, exploring uncharted areas in both characterization and themes. In the last two decades, Batman has had excellent years long runs. The most notable of them are Grant Morrison’s run from 2006 to 2012 and Scott Snyder’s run from 2011 to 2016.
One multi-title run in particular that I want to mention is Jonathan Hickman’s stint on the Avengers titles. From 2012 to 2015, he told an intricate, multi-layered sci-fi story heavy on both ideas and characterization. It explored themes of power, heroism, destiny and moral grey areas, all the while handling a huge cast of characters. The story culminated in the Marvel mega event Secret Wars, one of the most well received stories of its kind in the last decade.
Follow Me Down the Rabbit Hole
It’s hard to express the abundance of quality comic book content. After a break of 3 years, I am rebuilding my collection up from scratch. So far I have categorized over 6000 single issues, and most of these are just from the last 5 years or so. That’s after I filtered out the mediocre and the duds.
There is an abundance of quality comic book content.
I am going to throw some rapid-fire recommendations at you from a variety of genres and styles. These are limited by my own tastes and experiences and not all of them are of the same quality. I enjoyed all of them, however, and in case you give them a try, I hope you do too.
The Authority Volumes 1 and 2 (1999-2000) by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch
The Authority is a hard-hitting superhero team that tackles immense threats against their world and the universe. It has a clean, cinematic style that’s easy to follow but also handles subtle and important themes that reveal themselves if you pay attention.
The Uncanny Avengers Volumes 1-4 (2013-2014) by Rick Remender and Others
Uncanny Avengers is the perfect marriage between the Avengers and the X-Men that, unfortunately, we will never get to see on the big screen. Uncanny Avengers has a good mix of classic and modern superhero elements, balancing plot and characters equally well. It builds up to an epic plot with a shocking climax in the 2nd Act. It has a well-deserved, but bittersweet ending that will pull on your heartstrings.
Coming of Age
Ms. Marvel (2014-) by G. Willow Wilson and Others
This is a smart, fresh comic that made waves in the industry when it debuted two years ago. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager, develops super powers and then gets into a lot of hijinks. It’s the way it tackles diversity and the problems that comes with being a Muslim immigrant that really makes this title stand out. Kamala is also very relatable and the fantastic writing makes her endearing in no time at all.
Journey into Mystery (2011-2012) by Kieron Gillen and Others
This is a sprawling mix of fantasy and adorableness that features Loki, reincarnated as an eleven-year-old boy, trying to redeem himself in the eyes of others and, most importantly, himself.
It has one of the most poignant and depressing endings in comic book history. Just thinking about it makes me tear up. As a whole, it’s a beautiful exploration of myths and the nature of storytelling itself.
Comedy and Satire
Hawkeye (2012-2015) by Matt Fraction, David Aja and Others
This is best described as a slice of life comic that explores Hawkeye when he’s not doing superhero stuff with the Avengers. This is a fun, quirky book with fantastic character beats. It’s also the only book I know of to feature an issue told entirely from the perspective of a dog.
If you aren’t that thrilled about the dog (how could you?), please try this book if you like snappy dialogue, clean, almost minimalistic art and just good old fun.
NextWave (2006-2007) by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen
This is a book that’s all about nonsensical plots, outlandish characters and a team of dysfunctional heroes who are all about solving problems by beating them into submission. A highly subversive, outrageously clever take on mainstream comics that will have you laughing from beginning to end.
The first issue, for instance, features the giant dragon, Fin Fang Foom, a talking parody of Godzilla. He’s been burning with the desire to mate since 1946 but has no genitals whatsoever. His choice of attack is to put his enemies in his pants.
That’s just one drop of nonsense from an ocean of wacky awesomeness.
Noir, Dark and Gritty
Sleeper (2003-2005) by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Ed Brubaker is the undisputed king of noir comics. It was hard to pick just one story from his numerous fantastic works.
Sleeper is about a spec-ops soldier who goes undercover in a supervillain organization. It fuses crime noir with superpowers and the results are beautiful to behold. Brubaker is a master at setting the mood and building his story at a methodical pace while creating pathos for his characters. It has a classic, true-to-the genre ending that makes you feel bummed out but wraps up the story perfectly.
Punisher MAX (2004-2012) by Garth Ennis, Jason Aaron and Others
Punisher MAX features an aging Frank Castle in a world without superheroes. It’s a gripping crime story with tight plotting and brutal violence. It’s reflections on human cruelty, vengeance and retribution borders on almost operatic levels.
If you loved Punisher in Netflix’s Daredevil, then this is the book you need to check out.
Planetary (1999-2009) by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday
Planetary is about a team of archaeologists who excavate the strange and the unknown. Under the cover of this premise, what Warren Ellis really does is explore many classic pulp-fiction genres and pits them against the superhero genre. It also features many, many groundbreaking and heady sci-fi ideas that can make your head spin.
Despite all this complexity, Planetary is a very crisp read. You can read through all 27 issues in one sitting without feeling overwhelmed.
Miracleman (1982-1984) by Alan Moore and Gary Leach
Before Watchmen, there was Miracleman. This is a cerebral, frightening look at the implications of having superhumans in the real world. Miracleman marries the joy and serenity of having godlike powers with the unbelievable carnage one can wage with such powers. It’s a work of literary excellence on par with the seminal Watchmen.
Picking and choosing just the above ten was really tough. Here are some other books off the top of my mind you can also check out:
These are all great reads that can be enjoyed by beginners and veterans alike. If you have any questions about any of them or just about anything comic book related, feel free to contact me and I will be happy to answer them as best as I can.
Support the Comic Book Industry!
If you like good stories, you are missing out if you haven’t tried comics. Every time I read through a great comic, I fall in love with the medium all over again. If you give it a chance, the medium might grow on you as well.
Comic books are so much more than just source material for blockbuster movies. With your support, comics can not only stay great, but also grow and evolve into something even more beautiful over time.