What on Earth is happening to comic books?

By:  Karl Stern (@dragonkingkarl on Twitter)

I am going to start incorporating more blog posts into the When It Was Cool homepage in an effort to generate more content so I hope this is cool (pun intended) with everyone.

Yesterday was Wednesday, better known to we geeks as comic book day.  For the uninitiated this is the day new comic books are traditionally released and we comic book fans hit the comic shops, or in my case, the digital comic book store to grab up our reading material for the week.

The last few months have been tough.  Am I the only one feeling this?  My stack went from books I “want” to read to (sigh) “have” to read.  It seems like comics really went through a quality boom from 2010 until a year or so back.  Marvel had the long term build toward Secret Wars and the rebooting of their universe.  Meanwhile, DC Comics New 52 brand faltered but there were still some nice reads along the way, I think particularly about the Frank Quitely Batman & Robin series.

IDW had the G.I. Joe franchise and was doing some interesting things with it.  Origins, Hearts & Minds, and the modern day classic of G.I. Joe Cobra.  Dynamite had some nice licensed material too.  It was almost like we were entering a new golden age of comics in terms of quality.

Then something odd happened.  DC was languishing in the New 52 and decided to, again, reboot things.  This time it seemed to go much better.  DC Rebirth was a rousing success.  Marvel also refreshed their universe with the long anticipated Secret Wars.  Yet, born of Secret Wars was a bland, unfulfilling Marvel Universe with juxtaposed characters of classic and modern takes for the sake of diversification.  

Now we have a few Captain America’s, a few Hulks, several Spider-Men/Women/Gwen’s/2099s, Novas, Thors, Iron People, and who can remember them all?  The X-Men have been downgraded and the Inhumans upgraded with varying degrees of success.  The Fantastic Four have been escorted off panel, Ghost Rider has a book who the star seems to actually be the Hulk... the Cho Hulk not the Banner one.  It’s a confusing and rather uninteresting new universe.  Don’t even get me started on Civil War 2.  It really does seem that the “House of Ideas” ran out of ideas except for putting old costumes on new faces and calling that progress.

The very cohesiveness of the Marvel Universe is hard to see anymore.  The very thing that thrilled readers and stoked the fires of their imagination with Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and Spider-Man all running around in the same world- even the same city- now is vague at best.  Luke Cage & Iron Fist seem to have little to do with the world of The Avengers of which they were once a major part.  Moon Knight and Punisher might as well be taking place in another universe entirely.  What is Daredevil even doing now?  Netflix has a giant hit on their hands with the character yet, I can’t tell you the last time I thought about him in the comics universe.

DC looked strong following Rebirth but, to me at least, it now seems to be sputtering.  I have no idea what is going on in Justice League, Aquaman was interesting for a minute, as was The Flash, I will say that Superman and Batman have been the characters who have gained the most from rebirth with, at least, mildly interesting stories taking place in their books.

Outside of the big two IDW has absolutely destroyed my interest in G.I. Joe, which has been a staple of my fandom since 1982.  What they have done to that property passed sacrilege a long time ago and I now can not even read a single book they are in for fear of depression.  I will say for IDW that at least they have revived ROM and, thus far anyway, his book as been very good.

I never want to be “that guy” who says “back in my day!”  because I am well aware of comic books in the 1990s and we are a far cry away from that.  But we were so close... just a few years ago.  So close to consistent great stories and characters, so close to classic, epic stories that would stand the test of time (Brubaker Captain America, Hickman Fantastic Four).  Where did that go?  Is it just me?

I don’t want to lament the state of the modern comic book.  There is still hope, this is a short term problem (so far).  Marvel isn’t that far removed from Secret Wars to set right the ship of mediocrity.  DC need not drift off course.  And, Southern Bastards still comes out periodically too.  So there is hope... but let’s not wait too long.