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.