“How do we save comics?”
It’s been a long time since I last heard that question, much less thought about it. But thanks to a recent collision of press, politics, and online personalities, once again the age old topic of “saving comics” is again dominated social media feeds. Plenty of verbiage has been spilled and more than a few barbs have been thrown, but what’s lacking is a concrete notion of what “saving comics” really means.
If you’d asked me ten years ago what saving comics would look like, I would have said, “Me getting paid for the 20,000 copies my graphic novel sold without having to take the publisher to court.” I’d also have added, “Finding a publisher who wouldn’t try to sell the movie rights to my books when they didn’t own them.” Yes. This actually happened to me. Twice.
Around that same time, though, many believed the best way to save comics was to install a diversity buffet. Forget art! Forget story! And screw growing audiences! A glut of token-hires that can be wheeled out whenever the press accused comics of being racist, that’s what the industry needs!
Well, we saw how well that worked out.
After a year of disastrous sales and a wave of cancellations, it’s abundantly clear that the diversity buffet has not only harmed the mighty Marvel, but the industry as a whole. And nobody has taken that hit harder than store owners. The reasons are many and far too involved to mention here. But the TL;DR version is this:
Marvel and DC are the backbone of the comics industry. Fans have developed a visceral hatred for Marvel, and to a lesser extent DC, due to their books becoming what amounts to overpriced propaganda pamphlets for leftist political agendas. This has caused sales to hit an all time low. And if fans aren’t buying comics, store owners can’t pay the rent.
Enter Vox Day and his Arkhaven Comics venture.
To say Arkhaven has been controversial is an understatement. From the moment the company’s flagship title, Alt-Hero, was announced the internet was debating whether a right wing perspective would “save” comics, or further damage an already fractured industry. But as I said before, what’s lacking is a shared notion of what “saving comics” really means. That said, there is a general consensus that Mark Waid’s head on pike would be a good start. Which brings us back to Vox Day and Arkhaven. Most criticism directed toward Vox can be boiled down to: “The last thing comics needs is another goddamn writer with an agenda.”
A self-described libertarian nationalist and member of the Alt-Right, Vox Day has never been shy about his politics. Likewise, his yet to be release Alt-Hero series looks to be something of a satire of today’s overly politicized comics. The project is still months away from completion, so for now we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, Arkhaven has two titles digitally available on Amazon—Quantum Mortis and Right Ho, Jeeves. Both are selling well. Neither are political in nature. And there’s the rub—Alt-Hero could be a political screed. Then again, maybe not. But so far Arkhaven’s catalog hasn’t shown itself to be a mouthpiece for anybody’s politics. If only we could say the same for Marvel.
Does this signal a new dawn for comics? Well, if bringing content to an ignored demographic is Arkhaven’s end goal, it’s not a bad start. And drawing new readers to the medium is a net gain for everyone. But as Green Lantern artist Ethan Van Sciver has been quick to point out, the company currently has no presence in Diamond’s monthly Previews catalog, which is a prerequisite for getting books stocked in comic book stores. And in Sciver’s eyes, if a company isn’t moving product through brick-and-mortar shops, it’s contributing absolutely nothing to the overall health of the industry.
I’ll be blunt, if Arkhaven can eventually become successful enough to provide comics shops with enough monthly product to pay the rent, Vox will not only save the industry, he’ll be the motherfucking Batman. Here’s why…
When it comes to comic book shops, the average customer doesn’t want new. Nor do store owners. They want their X-Men. They want their Superman. They want the same roster of heroes beating the crap out of the same bunch of villains in the same two universes they’ve always loved, which exists exclusively within the pages Marvel and DC titles. And right now, Diamond holds a monopoly on distributing those titles. Sure, stores in major metropolitan areas will stock a broader selection of books from a variety of publishers, but this is far from the norm. Of the roughly 3000 comics shops in North America, most service an audience that is exclusively DC and Marvel.
There have been a few attempts to break the Diamond/Marvel/DC triumvirate. As for how successful they were, the state of comics today is all the answer you need. Sadly, the biggest culprit in all of this is laziness. Generally speaking, store owners haven’t the interest or inclination to promote non-DC/Marvel books. Nor do they want to services niche audiences or cultivate new readers. And they LOATHE the idea of thumbing through multiple catalogs each month to order product. Back when I was doing the convention circuit, I was shocked how many times I heard store owners describe their ordering habits as, “Once I’m through the Marvel and DC sections the catalog goes in the trash.”
Of course, this time around there’s one thing working in Arkhaven’s favor—the anger and betrayal felt by fans and owners is unlike anything the industry has ever seen. If there ever was a time readers could be willing to jump ship and invest themselves in a new mythology of heroes, it’s now. To succeed, though, these new heroes will first have to re-kindle that spark fans once felt for the old Marvel and DC characters. Then, they’ll need to find their way onto the shelves of every comic book store in the country.
I’d like to be optimistic about the situation. I want to believe somebody, anybody, could right this sinking ship. But honestly, what I think we’re witnessing is akin to the music industry of the early 2000s. The game changed. A corrupt recording industry refused to adapt. Record shops vanished over night.
My suggestion? We should follow the lead of our friends in the prose world. Go independent. Go digital. Adapt to a changing world by using it to our advantaged.