Friday, 3 January 2014

Comics Year in Review 2013

Or a look at this years reviewed comics and their genre distribution

It is almost 2014, and so the time has come for lists. But since this website is partially a top-ten list of my favourite mainstream comics, it's a bit silly to write a thing that just reiterates that list. The other half of the website is me talking reviewing and talking about creator-ownederish comics that I really like. These are diverse books that I think are hard to compare and, well, I think most of these books could be the best book in the world to some particular person. And so, I am not particularly interested in ranking them.

What I am interested in doing, however, is to look at the differences in genre diversity in Mainstream (Marvel/DC) and Creator-Ownderish comics. I think one of the most interesting and important differences between Marvel/DC and other comics publishers is the spectrum of stories that they publish. So just like last year, I am going to assign genres to all of this year's Top-ten mainstream comics and reviewed Creator-Ownederish comics.

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 Sophie's 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.
Travelogue: *NEW* A story that revolves around travelling to a new place and trying to convey the reality of living or visiting that place. Think Lonely Planet.
Urban Fantasy: A story set in the present with modest supernatural elements. Think Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Ground Hog Day or American Gods.
War: *NEW* A story set during a war and about people involved in the event. Think Band of Brothers or Full Metal Jacket.
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:

 Superhero (Analysis)

Avengers Assemble: Superhero (Analysis)
Batman: Superhero
Captain Marvel: Superhero (Analysis)
Daredevil: Superhero (Analysis)
FF (2): Superhero, Adventure (Analysis)
Hawkeye: Superhero, Thriller (Analysis)
The Indestructible Hulk: Superhero (Analysis)
The Movement: Superhero, Cultural (Analysis)
The Young Avengers: Superhero (Analysis)
Uncanny Avengers: Superhero
Winter Soldier: Superhero, Espionage
Wonder Woman: Superhero, Fantasy (Analysis)

Which gives me the following genre breakdown for Mainstream comics:

Adventure: 0.5

Cultural: 0.5
Espionage: 0.5
Fantasy: 0.5
Superhero: 10.5 
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:

100 Bullets: Thriller, Crime (Review)
Atomic Robo: Adventure, Comedy (Review)
Beast: Fantasy, Horror (Review)
Black Hole: Horror, Cultral (Review)
Chew: Mystery, Comedy (Review)
Criminal: Crime (Review)
Daybreak: Horror (Review)
Demo: Superhero, Drama (Review)
DMZ: Thriller, Cultural (Review)
Drinking At The Movies: Autobiographical, Comedy (Review)
Fatale: Crime, Horror (Review)
Four Eyes: Fantasy, Historic (Review)
Gingerbread Girl: Slice-of-Life (Review)
Global Frequency: Thriller, Science Fiction (Review)
Glory: Superhero (Review)
Godzilla: The Half-Century War: Science Fantasy, Horror (Review)
I Kill Giants: Fantasy, Drama
Jan's Atomic Heart: Science Fiction (Review)
Jerusalem: Travelogue, Autobiographical (Review)
Love and Rockets: Slice-of-Life, Other (Review)
Mystery Society: Science Fantasy (Review)
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong:  Slice-of-Life, Comedy (Review)
Orc Stain: Fantasy (Review)
Planetary: Superhero, Cultural (Review)
Pretty Deadly: Western, Fantasy (Review)
Prophet: Science Fiction (Review)
Saga: Science Fantasy (Review)
Saucer Country: Science Fiction, Cultural (Review)
Scalped: Crime, Thriller (Review)
Spaceman: Science Fiction, Crime (Review)
Stumptown: Mystery, Thriller (Review)
Sweet Tooth: Science Fantasy, Horror (Review)
The Five Fists of Science: Science Fantasy, Historic (Review)
The Infinite Wait and Other Stories: Autobiographical, Comedy (Review)
The Massive: Thriller, Cultural (Review)
The Other Side: War, Historic (Review)
The Underwater Welder: Drama (Review)
The Unwritten: Urban Fantasy, Cultural (Review)
Umbrella Academy: Superhero (Review)
Underground: Thriller (Review)
Whiteout: Thriller (Review)
Y The Last Man: Science Fiction, Horror (Review)
Zombies Calling: Horror, Comedy (Review)

Which gives us the following genre breakdown:

Adventure: 0.5
Autobiography: 1.5 
Comedy: 3.5
Crime: 3
Cultural: 3
Drama: 2
Fantasy: 3
Historic: 2
Horror: 4.5
Mystery: 1
Other: 0.5
Science Fantasy: 5
Science Fiction: 3
Slice-of-Life: 1
Superhero: 3
Thriller: 5
Travelogue: 0.5

Urban Fantasy: 0.5 
War: 0.5

Western: 0.5 

Which gives us a genre distribution that looks like this:

And if we compare the genre distribuitions between Mainstream (DC/Marvel) and Creator-Ownederish (basically everything else), we get the following:

This is the second year I've done one of these roundup/genre analysis posts. 2012 can be read here. What this means is that I can pool my genre distributions (correcting for any repeat titles and redundancies) to increase the sample size of the analysis and maybe cut down on sampling bias a little. 

Between the two posts I have looked at 22 Mainstream titles with the following genre distribution:

I have also looked at 64 Creator-Ownederish titles the encompass this genre distribution:

And if compare all of the analyzed Mainstream and Creator-Ownederish comics reviewed in 2012 and 2013 I get the following comparison plot (which is normalized for percent due to different sample sizes):

The trend that immediately pops out of both data sets is that the mainstream comics I read are overwhelmingly Superhero comics while the alternative comics press, the Creator-Ownderish books encompass a much wider spectrum of genres. And I think this is pretty interesting.

Now there is obviously some sampling bias going on here. Like, I am pretty keen on the geekier corridors of genre fiction so Science Fiction and Fantasy genres are probably over represented in both sample groups. Similarly, I feel like my Superhero genre interests are being satisfied by my Mainstream reading habits the many Creator-Ownderish Superhero comics that are available aren't reflected in the data. I am also just starting to get into the more literary strains of comics, so the more dramatic/literary fiction aspects of comics are greatly underrepresented in these plots too. Basically, my point is that this is in no way a Scientific poll, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

(Although, I think a similar genre distribution of the Diamond Shipping lists in any month will yield similar distributions...)

But. Despite the issues with sampling, I think these genre distributions get at an essential truth of comics: Mainstream (Marvel/DC) comics are overwhelmingly Superhero comics. Which means that almost every single title the two biggest comics publishers make belong to, at least in part, a single genre. Or, put another way, about 2/3s of the direct comics market (at least) is comprised of a single genre. Which is crazy! Comics are a medium in the same way novels or television or film are media. They are devices that can tell literally ANY KIND OF STORY. And yet, the majority of North American comics sold at any given time are Superhero comics.

That said, the data also shows that alternatives to Superhero comics clearly exist. People are very much making any kind of story using comics, and one just has to take a small step away from Marvel and DC to find them. If nothing else, this indicates that there is some sort of market for a wider variety of comics.

And this is really the crux of what I find interesting about these genre distributions. Clearly there is a huge market for Superhero comics and DC and Marvel have both geared up to satisfy these markets. It also seems that the largest Creator-Ownederish comics publishers/imprints/etc have focussed on publishing a much wider variety of genres. Which creates a bunch of questions. Do Marvel and DC essentially have control of the Superhero market to such a degree that it isn't viable for other publishers to also focus exclusively on Superhero comics? Is the Superhero market over or fully saturated? Conversely, are other genres of comics under served? Does the broader genre distribution of Creator Ownederish a reflection of them fulfilling this niche? Do non-Superhero genres comics have room to grow? And about a hundred more questions...

I think this is relevant because growing the comic reading audience would be really good for comics. There is only so much money any individual comic reader WILL or CAN spend on comics. More people reading comics means more money for comics publishers and creators. A bigger comics market means more comics and more options for readers. Basically the more readers there are the better it is for everyone. The trouble is that I think most people who are inclined to try a Superhero comic already have. This is entirely anecdotal, but the friends I've gotten to try, read, and even buy comics are never initially interested in Superhero comics. They are always way more willing to try comics that are similar to their favourite novels or shows. Which has led me to believe that one of the ways for comics to grow the market is to be more genre diverse to appeal to people outside the traditional audience. And my graphs here indicate that Creator-Ownederish comics do a much better job of this than Marvel and DC.

Which is food for thought, eh?

Comics Year in Review 2012

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