The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
Nobody truly predicts the future.
All they do is look at current and assumed trends, then make a “bold prediction” based on whether they think that trend will continue or not. This is true whether you’re talking about the year ahead, the decade ahead, or the next millennium.
In 1995, “Comics Scene” magazine had a special 50th issue. It included an eight page segment asking comics professionals where they thought the world of comics would be at the turn of the millennium.
Put yourself in the mindset of the comics industry in late 1994, early 1995. The great comics bubble of the early 90s was over. Sales were still high, but the reactions to that bubble were starting to drown the market in copycat products and shelf-stuffing procedures.
A small fleet of copycats and wannabes flooded the market, all thinking they were the next Rob Liefeld because they could draw pouches, or the next Jim Lee because their women has waspy waists and incredibly long legs. Other publishers were starting their own doomed-to-fail universes. (Marvel had just bought Malibu and its Ultraverse, for example.)
“Spawn” and “X-Men” jockeyed for the #1 sales position every month, often alternating.
There were still multiple distributors, but Marvel had just bought Hero’s World, and people wondered if that single move would doom the entire industry.
Artists were the stars, with writers being a distant second. Many of those artists were diluted by the copycats, however. And many artists who thought they could also be competent writers weren’t.
Keep those things in mind when we go over some of these responses. Because I’ve learned an unassailable truth about predicting the future in this exercise, and I want to repeat it and bold-face it:
People cannot predict the future. They can only see what they have today and guess at a further evolution, or a large scale disruption.
Guessing something out of thin air is not an option.
Here, for the record, was the actual question asked:
“As the Millennium approaches, what do you see as the future of comics?”
Let’s break down their answers into a few categories.
State of the Story
There was a lot of grumbling in the comments from artists and writers complaining that there’s no story in comics, and that the future will come in the shape of a resurgence of story. For the most part, this came from the “You Kids Get Off My Lawn” crown, but also included the much younger John Romita Jr.:
I hope comics returns to storytelling, and this flash-in-the-pan, pinup style of art has gone by the wayside. I think it already has, but I hope that comics return to good old-fashioned storytelling. I don’t mean to sound like a fuddy-duddy, I just think that comics were meant to be a form of cinematic storytelling in stop-action form, and I hope that’s what they go back to, They took a couple of years off because a couple of people decided they would rather draw fancy-looking pictures than good stories, but I think it’s going to return to storytelling — at least, I hope it does!”
Ouch. Care to guess who those “fancy-looking pictures” artists are? I have hunches, but I don’t want to accidentally start rumors.
Gil Kane charged the way for the older set:
“There’s virtually NO story. It’s a series of pinups, in effect. The next thing that has to happen is the return of stories that are a reflection of a maturing group of people… Now the field is full of guys bringing back these very recent adolescent fantasies, and it has to struggle back to a better level of character-driven stories that absorb the reader rather than arresting him with visuals which are so arrogant that they totally dispense with any kind of story material that gets in its way.”
The charge that comics creators are writing fan-fic for a living has been around since at least the 1970s. It didn’t go away by 1995. It’s still a thing you hear today, particularly as universes reboot and current creators pick and choose their favorite characters, often based on what they liked when they were growing up.
Joe Simon was particularly cranky about it, as well:
“Changes in five years? Not a helluva lot! I expect the field to shrink by two-thirds. The remaining titles will be stronger. Later, look for comics to be done in holograms, metallic pages, audio and other forms of dimensional effects. You will noticed that I have NOT mentioned story content. Guess why not!”
I’m still waiting for the metallic pages and ‘dimensional effects,’ though I suppose Marvel did give us a few holographic covers.
I’m not sure why he didn’t mention story content, though. Was that because that’s the heart of comics and it should go without saying? Or was he sure it would be lost in the new technologies and those kids should get off his lawn?
Shrink by two-thirds? Things did get pretty bad by the lowest part of the 90s, but was it two-thirds? Even by late 1994/early 1995, the heady days of million-dollar sales on every Image first issue was over, but books still sold in the six figures regularly.
State of the Tech to Publish
The word “CD-ROM” comes up an awful lot in this article. I can remember being in high school a year or two before this article and being amazed at the encyclopedia we could now have on a CD-ROM. It came with actual videos of things like a giraffe walking for five seconds. It was a game changer.
In this article, the talk was of the computerized delivery of comics. And just to show how much these predictions are always a sign of their own times, most guesses centered on CD-ROM delivery. There was no cable internet yet in those days. We were still all on modems going over telephone lines. The internet was just coming up, but high speed internet in the home that would give you something like YouTube was still a decade away from “normalcy.”
“I just mentioned to some people at DC to get the jump on what I think could be a future trend — some sort of subscription on-line delivery of comics. You could punch up “Batman” #572 and you’re charged 79 cents, and it would be down-loaded into your computer — you could save it on a disk if you wanted or just read it on the screen and dump it — it’s up to you! This was not met with much enthusiasm, but I think it’s one possibility. Monitor resolution would have to get quite a bit better before it would duplicate the experience of seeing it printed on a page, but it’s going to happen.”
If only he had predicted the iPad instead of using a CRT monitor viewing a floppy disk in his prediction, he would have won this column. Remember, though, that this was 1995. There were no LED displays yet. There were definitely no tablets, and downloading anything on the internet from home meant dialing in with a phone line. Every JPEG and GIF meant valuable seconds spent staring at the screen while images slowly filled in.
Given those constraints, I don’t think you can blame DC for not jumping on this idea.
State of the Tech to Produce
And, of course, there was the digital creation of comics.
Nobody went further with it than Peter David. His answer presaged webcomics and the democratization of comics creation in a way that got people ticked off from misunderstanding him:
You will also see a greater use of computers as tools for producing comic books. This is something I’ve speculated on in the past: the notion that computers will create a level playing field for people who are either barely adequate, or totally incapable artists, to nevertheless produce comics. They will become writer/artists as it were, through the use of computers. This statement of mine in the past has been misinterpreted to mean, “Oh, well, artists will become almost unnecessary in the future.’ No, I never said that. What I said is that through the use of various means of technology, it will simply become a more level playing field, where the best stories will be told by the best creators, period. Ideally, there will then be an audience there to receive it.
Imagine that! A comic created by a person with limited artistic abilities who can leverage a computer to put together a comic that people will like.
(They make The Oatmeal look like Michael-friggin-angelo…)
Tom Mason was more conservative, seeing the increase usage of technology being something along the lines of the “illusion of change”:
“Comic books are essentially the same, format-wise, as they have been since the late ‘30s, even though technology has rapidly improved. We have high-speed phone lines and faxes, we have computers and computerized coloring, we have all this stuff that makes a comic book better, but it doesn’t replace the fact that comics are still crafted by writers and artists. How a comic book is assembled has remained the same for over 50 years — the comic books themselves just look better. The production values have improved, and I think they’ll continue to do that.”
Can’t argue with that, though his earlier prediction that comics will always be 32 pages may be a hair off the mark at Marvel/DC….
Jim Starlin marveled at the wonders of creating comics on the computer:
“I’m working with a computer coloring company now, and it has changed the way I look at comic books quite completely. Eventually, there will come a time when they’ll no longer even be drawn on paper, though we’re not at that point yet.”
We are now, though.
The MultiMedia Problem
Rob Liefeld gave his opinion, in the way you’d expect 1994 Rob Liefeld to give it:
“I’m afraid that we may have to start polybagging EVERY comic and throwing in trading cards, bubble gum and a decoder ring. I fear that comic books could become big trading card packages wrapped in nice silver foil with a big red bow.”
After that, he went on to give a grimmer look at the future. Liefeld hypothesized that comics will have to go underground because the kids will all be playing video games, instead. You know what? He wasn’t far off:
“…why is a kid going to pay $2.50 to look at heroes on paper, when they can be a comic book hero on a video screen, and get an adrenaline rush beating the snot out of the bad guys? …that is the fight we face.”
Just remember what the state of the art in video games was back in 1995. We were just at the end of the Super Nintendo era there. The Nintendo 64 wouldn’t come out for another year. The First Person Shooter genre had just started with Doom, and you couldn’t even look up and down in that!
Why would today’s kid spend $3.99 or $4.99 on a 20 page comic story when they could download Pokemon Go for free and spend hours playing a game and buying extra storage balls for 99 cents apiece? iPhone/iPad games have finished their race to the “free” price point. Tough to compete with that as a $4 comic, I’d have to think.
But it is Len Strazewski who comes closest to nailing it and, in retrospect, might as well have dropped the mic and walked backwards away and out the door after providing this answer:
“The future of comics is to be more a part of the multi-media marketing engine. In other words, I don’t expect to see a lot of freestanding, just-comics being developed, but comics being an extension of things going on in video games and animation. The comic character may be the creative engine behind all of this, but the comic book is just going to be one aspect of how that creative engine is used. If you really love comics, you’re going to have to develop characters and creative engines for other media, to support the publication of the comic book.”
Don’t believe him? Look at the comic publishers who have failed because they didn’t get the big Hollywood money in fast enough. (CrossGen) Then look at the one who sold for $4 billion once they got their movie production engine developed. (Marvel.) Then see just how many creator-owned books are sold to TV or movies before the first issue is ever released. (Hello, Mark Millar.)
Along the same lines, John Ostrander identified comics as being the research and development arm for Hollywood 20 years ago:
“It’s so much cheaper to do a year’s worth of comics than a TV plot or a movie draft of the concept. If it works in comics, you can easily adapt it to movies or television, and I think that’s going to become increasingly important. Any characters developed are going to have to be adaptable for everything from movies to video games to toys.”
Creators don’t create comic book characters anymore. They create IP. Their lawyers and agents license that IP across all the media.
Leave it to Keith Giffen to have a prediction like this one:
Four-color crack. Comics have got to become the wildest high you can get within the time that you’re reading it, and they’ve gotta demand that you come back for more. Make it fun again! Let’s be a little dangerous and subversive.
That sounds like fun!
Oh, the Irony
Jim Lee, ever the business man:
“Fewer publishers, fewer distributors, and hopefully fewer titles. I think there will be a consolidation of sorts. You can’t go through the massive expansion and subsequent decline we’ve gone through without a serious restructuring. I think people got over-extended because they had to, and business pressures were on distributors and publishers to expand, and they did so. When it collapsed, they had to take a hard hit. It surprised me that it took so long for it to get to this point. But, I think comics will re-stabilize and there will be slow but steady growth once again, until the next bunch of speculators jump in!”
Lee would sell WildStorm to DC Comics in 1998.
DC would start a major rebranding twenty years later.
Business As Usual
In the end, maybe it was Howard Chaykin who nailed the prediction the best:
“The future of comics is basically the same old crap, with the occasional bright blip of interesting stuff, usually unexpected and having very little or nothing to do with what people say they want.”
Can’t argue with THAT prediction.