Friday, 4 January 2013

Variety Is The Spice Of Comics pt. 2: Year in Review

Or how variety in comics is amazing and generally a good idea.

It's now the year 2013, which means it's now an appropriate time to post some type of top arbitrary-number-of comics list. But since much of this website is about me only reading my favourite ten mainstream comics it always operates as a top ten list. So maybe not the most illuminating entry to write...

The other chunk of this blog is celebrating the amazing Creator-ownederish comics I've been reading and honestly I think they are all pretty amazing in their own ways. The thing is, these books are mostly radically different from one another and span a wide variety of genres and subjects so it's hard to compare them.  Therefore, I think setting these comics up in some sort of hierarchal best of list is kind of unfair and, since there are distinct reasons to read each comic, kind of besides the point. 

So instead, to celebrate this New Year, I'm going to look back over everything I've read in the last... however many months since I started writing this thing and list all the great things I've read. But since that is kind of boring I'm also going to assign all of the books I've read a genre and then compare the distribution of the types of stories in my Mainstream (Marvel and DC) and Creator-ownederish comics reading. Because I think there is something interesting there.

The genres:

Comics don't automatically get assigned genres, and are infrequently sorted by genre in stores. Instead, they tend to get sorted by format (monthlies, tradepaperbacks, original graphic novels etc). So I'm going to assign my own genres to all these comics. For convenience (and ease of graphing) I'm also going to lump a bunch of genres together. To keep us all on the same page these are the genres I'll be using and a short definition of what I mean by them.

An action packed story with elements of travel, journey, and discovery. Usually a bit light hearted. Think Indiana Jones.

Autobiography: A truthful, or semi-truthful account of the authors life. Think... well any autobiography.
Comedy: A sizeable percentage of the story is devoted to making the audience laugh or subverting the premise for comedic/absurd reasons. I'm using this in both the humour and satirical sense. Think: Superbad or Dr. Strangelove.
Crime: A story about criminals and those that live outside the law. Usually has heist and/or thriller elements. Think Drive or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or even Ocean's 11 (the original please).
Cultural: I'm using this as a catch all for a story that integrally features a commentary on some sort of cultural construction. Think District 9 and apartheid or The West Wing and presidential politics.
Drama: A story whose action is built around emotional tension and consequences. Think Sophies Choice.
Espionage: About spies. Think James Bond
Fantasy: A story involving a supernatural element like magic. I'm going to use it in the context of historic, epic, or mythic elements. Think Lord of The Rings
Historic: Set in the past: actual or alternate. Think Gladiator or Band of Brothers.
Horror: Stories that endeavour to scare, frighten, or creep out its audience. Think The Shining, or if you're me ET.
Mystery: A story that is constructed around solving a mystery or crime. I'm also going to lump police procedurals into this category. Think Law and Order.
Other: Something that defies easy classification. Like, well that's kind of the issue isn't it.
Science Fantasy: A story with fantastical technologies or a story set in the future with fantastical elements without regard for Scientific plausibility. Think Star Wars or Firefly.
Science Fiction: A story that features some sort of societal or technological thought experiment. Think 1984 or I Robot
Slice-of-Life: About the lives of characters in a texture of their everyday life kind of way. That's a terribly nebulous definition... but it works? Think Forest Gump.
Superhero: People with super natural abilities have adventures of some sort. Think Avengers.
Thriller: Excitement! Suspense! Action! Danger! Think Die Hard.
Urban Fantasy: A story set in the present with modest supernatural elements. Think Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Ground Hog Day or American Gods.
Western: A story about the Wild West, cowboys, etc. These stories have their own kinds of genre tropes and narrative feel which goes beyond the subject matter which I think justifies them as having their own genre. Think True Grit or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Mainstream (Marvel & DC) comics I've read since starting the blog:

So here are all the comics that have been in my Top Ten at some point during the last year. How this is going to work is each title is worth 1 point towards further analysis. Since many titles don't clearly sit in one genre, their 1 point can be broken up and assigned to multiple genres. So for a book with two genres, each genre will get 1/2 a point. Pretty straight forward, right?

So with this scoring system in place these are the books I've read this year and the genres I think they most belong to:


Avengers Assemble: Superhero
Batman: Superhero
Batwoman: Superhero
Captain Marvel: Superhero
Daredevil: Superhero
Fantastic Four: Superhero, Science Fiction
FF: Superhero, Science Fiction
Hawkeye: Superhero, Thriller
The Flash: Superhero
The Invincible Ironman: Superhero
Thunderbolts: Superhero
Ultimate Spider-Man: Superhero
Uncanny Avengers: Superhero
Winter Soldier: Superhero, Espionage
Wonder Woman: Superhero, Fantasy

Which gives me the following genre breakdown for Mainstream comics:

Espionage: 0.5
Fantasy: 0.5
Science Fiction: 1
Superhero: 12.5
Thriller: 0.5

Which when graphed looks like this:

Creator-ownederish comics I've read since starting this blog:

In the same period of time I read all or some of the following creator-ownederish comics. Again, each title is worth 1 point, and this point can be chopped into parts for titles that span multiple genres. Oh, and I've included links to all the reviews that have been published. Here's the list:

A Red Mass For Mars: Superhero (Review)
Atomic Robo: Adventure, Comedy (Review)
Beast: Fantasy, Horror
Casanova: Espionage, Science Fiction (Review)
Chew: Mystery, Comedy (Review)
Criminal: Crime (Review)
Daytripper: Slice-of-Life, Drama (Review)
Demo: Superhero, Drama
DMZ: Thriller, Cultural
Echo: Superhero (Review)
Fatale: Crime, Horror (Review)
Fell: Mystery, Horror (Review)
Friends With Boys: Slice-of-Life, Comedy (Review)
Four Eyes: Fantasy, Historic
Glory: Superhero
Ignition City: Science Fantasy, Western (Review)
Jan's Atomic Heart: Science Fiction
King City: Science Fantasy, Comedy (Reviews)
Love and Rockets: Slice-of-Life, Other
Mesmo Delivery: Other (Review)
Moving Pictures: Drama, Historic (Review)
Mystery Society: Science Fantasy
Orc Stain: Fantasy
Pax Romana: Science Fiction, Historic (Review)
Phonogram: Urban Fantasy, Cultural (Review)
Prophet: Science Fiction (Review)
Queen and Country: Espionage (Review)
Saga: Science Fantasy
Saucer Country: Science Fiction, Cultural
Scalped: Crime, Thriller
Scott Pilgrim: Drama, Comedy (Review)
Spaceman: Science Fiction, Crime
Sweet Tooth: Science Fantasy, Horror (Review)
The Death Ray: Superhero, Comedy (Review)
The Infinite Wait and Other Stories: Autobiographical, Comedy
The Manhattan Projects: Science Fantasy, Historic (Review)
The Nightly News: Thriller, Cultural (Review)
The Red Wing: Science Fiction (Review)
The Unwritten: Urban Fantasy, Cultural (Review)
Transhuman: Science Fiction, Comedy (Review)
Umbrella Academy: Superhero (Review)
Underground: Thriller
Whiteout: Thriller
Y The Last Man: Science Fiction, Horror

(The ones without Review links, have reviews in the pending queue. FORESHADOWING!)

Which gives us the following genre breakdown:

Adventure: 0.5
Autobiography: 0.5
Comedy: 4.5
Crime: 2
Cultural: 2.5
Drama: 2
Espionage: 1.5
Fantasy: 2
Historic: 2
Horror: 2.5
Mystery: 1
Other: 1.5
Science Fantasy: 4
Science Fiction: 6
Slice-of-Life: 1.5
Superhero: 5
Thriller: 3.5
Urban Fantasy: 1
Western: 0.5

Which gives us a genre distribution that looks like this:

Comparison and Thoughts:

So, I'd ultimately like to compare the two groups on the same graph, because Science. To do this, I'm going to normalise everything so that each genre appears as a percentage of the total titles read in each category. If I do this and plot Mainstream comics against Creator-ownederish comics I get this guy:

Which of course tells us a bunch of things. Like, I am apparently a huge dork that loves Superhero comics and Science Fiction/Fantasy comics. (So yeah, there is some selection bias in this, obviously.) But despite that, I think its pretty obvious that Creator-ownederish comics are much more diverse from a genre perspective than Mainstream comics, and that Mainstream comics are all about the superheroes.

The fact Mainstream comics are so superhero focused is both obvious and interesting. Since Mainstream books generally outsell Creator-Ownederish comics in the direct market and since virtually all of these books are Superhero or Superhero-hybrid books it's pretty safe to say there is a substantial market for this genre. But at the same time superheroes are all they are selling and I strongly suspect that everyone who wants to read a Superhero comic already is, or knows that they exist and where to get them. And I wonder, to what extent does the narrowness of the Mainstream genre pool hamper comics ability to reach wider audiences? How do Mainstream publishers, who are already publishing very high quality comics, convince new people to try comics without broadening the genres of their books?

On the Creator-ownederish side the diversity of publishing is pretty interesting. Does this variety exist because Mainstream publishing houses have effectively saturated the comics market with high quality Superhero books while neglecting other genres, thus creating a niche for closely related genre fiction? Or is it that the metric independent publishers use to determine which Creator-ownederish comics are made is the potential quality of the product rather than the products potential to satisfy a particular audience (vis-a-vis a Superhero loving one)? Or is that the creators of Creator-ownederish comics use their Superhero ideas on mainstream writing gigs and therefore mostly have ideas left over for other genres? Or are they just completely sick of writing Superhero comics? Whatever the reason for it, the diversity of Creator-ownederish comics is both fun to read and the probable source of their popularity in the book market (they stand out more) and with people who don't typically read comics.

Honestly, I think both approaches have some merit. The focus of Mainstream comics has produced some astonishingly good Superhero comics and is, at least for the moment, a viable and reasonably lucrative business model. At the same time, the variety of Creator-ownederish comics is refreshing: they  are unique and idiosyncratic and surprising which makes them a pleasant break from Superhero books. As someone that was starting to burn out on Superhero books, this ability to find genre variety is an essential part of my comics enjoyment. Being able to find amazing comics of all kinds and supplement them with excellent Superhero books is pretty great. (Did I mention reading a tradepaperback/original graphic novel a week and ten Superhero titles a month is a pretty great way to read comics?)

My one concern is whether the world needs so many Superhero books. I maintain that everyone who wants to read Superhero comics largely already is, and if they are anything like me, they are already spending everything they are going to on these comics. To grow the North American comics audience and to create a more viable long term market I think it would be in the interest of Marvel and DC to inject more diversity into their respective lines. That way they might be able to draw people who have no interest in Superheroes into comics in the same way Image and other Creator-ownederish publishers and imprints have been doing.

So there, that was my year in comics by genre.

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