Jack Kirby is Not Coming through that Door

It’s no secret that comic book sales are in trouble.  After a high in 2007, sales have been slumping for several years.  And practically everyone seems to have noticed.  You don’t have to travel very far on the internet to come across a discussion about the state of the slump, the cause or the cure.  Of course, having some interest in the topic, I haven’t exactly attempted to avoid such discussions.  However, one comment in particular caught my eye: “Comic books have been in trouble since Jack Kirby left Marvel.”

            I could give the commenter the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe he was making fun of the predictions of the death of the industry that have been around almost as long as the industry.  But I don’t think that was the case.  Based on the tone of the discussion, the commenter seemed to seriously suggest that comic books have been on the verge of death for 40 years, or longer than I’ve been alive.

            Now, I have a few quibbles with that offhand comment. 

            First, while noticing the valleys and slumps that have periodically plagued comic book sales, it fails to recognize the peaks and successes that have also been a part of the cycle.  Comics sold well in the 1980s, in the early ‘90s and in this past decade.  The claim that our current problems began in 1970 betrays a false belief that comic book sales have seen a straight line down from 1970 to the present day.  They haven’t.  The past 40 years have seen a cycle of both rises and falls.  Notably, the more recent peaks have taken place without Jack Kirby. 

            More importantly, the comment places an unwarranted faith in the past.  Those who look to the past to save the present or the future are bound to be disappointed.  I’m reminded of an excellent rant by Rick Pitino when he was coach of the Boston Celtics:

Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old.”

            The superstars of the past, whether in comic books or basketball, can not save the present or the future. 

            Comic book fans, Jack Kirby is not walking through that door.  Julius Schwartz is not walking through that door, and Mort Weisinger is not walking through that door.  Even if they were somehow still alive, they still wouldn’t be able to save comic books.  They would be old.  They would be out of touch.  We wouldn’t be getting the Jack Kirby of 1967 who was at the top of his form.  Remember that Jack Kirby kept working for 15 years after he left Marvel.  Remember that he even came back to Marvel for a time.  While some of his later work was worthwhile, it wasn’t enough to spark new heights for the industry.

            Consider the former superstars who have made recent forays into comic books.  Stan Lee contributed several superhero ideas to Boom Studios and those series aren’t exactly burning up the charts.  Stan Lee helped create modern comic books in 1961, but he can’t be the one to save them in 2011.  Neal Adams is another former superstar producing current work.  Unfortunately, his Batman: Odyssey series has been widely panned (even by Neal Adams fans) and is sinking swiftly down the sales charts.

            I don’t mean to point my finger only at other people.  I have to remind myself that the industry won’t be saved by the series, styles or writers that captivated me when I was younger.  Paul Levitz is back on the Legion of Superheroes, but with little impact on sales.  Jim Shooter is once again working on characters that he revived for Valiant, but the new titles are tanking on the sales charts.  What worked in the mid-‘80s or the early ‘90s is unlikely to be the solution for today. 

             What is the solution?  I don’t know.  I’ve always been a better cheerleader than prognosticator.  Like many, I expect that the next peak will be driven in major part by digital sales.  But I don’t know what series or creative star will lead the way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Views: 354

Comment by Lee Houston, Junior on March 4, 2011 at 4:01pm

BRAVO!

I for one have supported and believe in the comic book industry for a mighty long time myself. While I don't know all the answers either, I'm at least wise enough to ask the questions and have a few thoughts upon the subject.

The industry does need to try new formats and concepts, while not abandoning the tried and true. I have heard some critics suggest that comic books give up the regular monthly format. This idea I am totally against because with monthly releases, companies can try new things with minimum risks via mini-series and specials.

Comment by George on March 4, 2011 at 8:57pm

Comics as a mass medium aimed at a large general audience (including many people who had no interest in superheroes) ended in the early '80s, when comic shops became the prime retail venue. When this happened, fans and collectors replaced the much larger audience of casual buyers. And most genres other than superheroes went into decline.

 

Of course, the comics themselves survived, and will continue to survive, in one form or another. I've been expecting the death of the pamphlet for over a decade, but it hasn't happened yet. (This reminds me of the once-per-decade pronouncements that "movies are dead" or "rock n' roll is dead.") I assume the higher cover prices allow publishers to continue comics at a level of sales that, in the '50s or '60s, would have prompted immediate cancellation.

Comment by Rich Lane on March 4, 2011 at 10:28pm

Fans need to quit looking to past...PERIOD.

 

It has ever been the case that by the time a creator is recognized as "genius," he or she is already past prime.  By the time Alfred, Lord Tennyson was recognized as Poet Laureate of England, his best works were behind him, and it's been the same ever since.  I remember being enrapt by the legend of "King" Kirby when he returned to Marvel in the mid-70s, but I was utterly disappointed by his work on Captain America (during the summer of 1976, even!) and the Black Panther.

Comment by Mr. Silver Age on March 5, 2011 at 1:10pm

I think most people find that comics don't provide much value today. The price is too high for the entertainment received. The stories are long and drawn out and only make sense to heavily involved, dedicated readers willing to read everything. Characters die and are brought back to life indiscriminately. I hear older readers complaining of burnout, and few new readers are coming in because the price of admission is so high to really enjoy any comic.

It would be interesting to analyze the numbers and see if titles across the board have dropped or if some have dropped more than others and which ones those are. It's hard to do, because so many events create mini-series and special issues that make it hard to compare apples to oranges, but I would argue that's part of the problem.

I'm probably old-fashioned, but I think if creators told good stories that explained what was going on before the story started and actually wrapped up at least in the TPB-sized chunk of six issues or so, and didn't rely on knowing the events of dozens of other comics that month, they could attract more readers interested in trying a comic.

The Kirby Connection is a glib statement that's pretty ignorant. Comics have been in trouble since WWII ended, or the Senate investigated them, or drugstores stopped carrying them. They are a strong medium, one that kids in America love and people all over the world read regularly. But American comics seem bent on creating a niche market, which right now is not attractive to many even in that niche.

-- MSA

Comment by George on March 5, 2011 at 6:29pm

"The stories are long and drawn out and only make sense to heavily involved, dedicated readers willing to read everything."

 

That's been a problem for quite a while now. Stories are now written by and for hardcore fans who have spent their whole lives immersed in the Marvel and DC universes. It's virtually impossible for a newcomer to pick up a mag and figure out what's going on. Stan Lee used to tell his writers that "every comic book is someone's first, so take a few panels to explain who the characters are." That doesn't seem to happen anymore.

Comment by Luke Blanchard on March 6, 2011 at 12:07am
I think it's more important that the current distribution system and standard format don't reach or aren't attractive to non-fan readers. Very continuity-heavy or metacontinuity-heavy comics(1) often sell better than others. I might add that publishers other than Mavel and DC, such as Image, do new titles that aren't continuity-heavy all the time.

(1) When you need to know an old story to properly appreciate a comic, but it doesn't treat that story as in continuity, the comic is making use of metacontinuity rather than continuity.
Comment by George on March 6, 2011 at 12:28am
Douglas Wolk pointed out in his book, "Reading Comics," that by the late '70s both Marvel and DC were almost entirely staffed by people who came up through superhero fandom. It's not surprising that they produce the kind of comics they enjoy reading. Fans-turned-pro tend to be obsessed with continuity; they devote stories to tying up loose ends from old stories most people have long forgotten.
Comment by Mr. Silver Age on March 6, 2011 at 9:16am

Very continuity-heavy or metacontinuity-heavy comics(1) often sell better than others.

I definitely believe that if fans bought only the comics they enjoyed reading, we'd have different comics on the stands. No matter what fans type, the fact that crossovers and mega-events sell better is all that matters.

I think the publishers' problem is that with each of those events, more fans burn out on the commitment needed (and satisfaction all that expense brought) and leave comics altogether. And no new ones are coming in to take up the slack, because the price of admission is so high and chances for understanding what's going on are so low. So the numbers keep going down.

It's interesting that Cap just posted his review of the All-Star Superman DVD and the comics series it was based on, which got really good reviews. It told single-issue stories with an overarching concept in the background, and each issue was a lot of fun. A recipe for bringing in readers and adding sales is right there, but nobody much is using it. Frankly, I'm not sure many writers could do it any more.

I think it's telling that Marvel is creating its Point One interim issues as "jumping on points" for new readers. It seems to be admitting that nobody can understand the comics if they pick one up off the rack. That's pretty sad for the basic super-hero titles they produce.

I sincerely doubt it'll boost sales much. Telling stories that actually made sense to new readers and giving me some resolution in the issue I just bought would do that better.

-- MSA
Comment by Luke Blanchard on March 6, 2011 at 12:04pm

Usually, what readers buy is the best guide to what they want. It might seem this can't be so, given that it's proverbially the case that readers often keep buying titles after they've stopped enjoying them. However, there are other reasons to buy a comic than because it's well written and drawn. You might really like its star character, or be more interested in stories that contain important developments for a universe than stories which are self-contained.

 

I think it's likely publishers got false signals about what readers wanted during the speculator boom, but speculation is much less of a factor in the market today.

Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on March 6, 2011 at 7:06pm
I think comics will survive, but the future is increasingly digital. Fans who collect monthly comics are the ones who will eventually be like 8-track tape collectors.

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