At the end of last year, an outlet asked me to come up with a grand operating theory of Comics In 2021; I did, but the piece didn’t happen, which is probably for the best for one simple reason: I think I had gotten things wrong.
I’d originally pitched the idea that, if 2020 was The Year That Broke Comics, then 2021 was the year where comics couldn’t work out how to put itself back together again — a year when the old systems continued to break down, or got replaced by new systems that had the potential to be game changers to the industry. (Think the way that Substack’s comics program offered its invited creators both income and freedom unlike anything they’d likely seen before, or even Penguin Random House entering the Direct Market via its deal with Marvel.) A year that, as I originally pitched it, might have proven once and for all that the Old Ways were gone for good, even if no-one had quite worked out what the next new normal for comics would actually be.
Then, almost immediately after that, I started hearing rumors about potential problems at Substack and that a number of retailers who’d jumped ship to Penguin Random House had since returned to Diamond, because they were unhappy with PRH’s service. Other things were being rumored behind the scenes that suggested that, perhaps, Diamond’s Steve Geppi wasn’t entirely wrong when suggesting that his comeback would be stronger than his setback
. Sure, comics fans have always traditionally been a cowardly, superstitious and conservative — socially, if not politically — lot, but this seemed something more than just being slow to accept change; it was almost a rejection of change altogether.*
With that in mind, 2021 suddenly became the middle chapter in a trilogy about the future of comics, because I’ve been conditioned too well by pop culture and the ubiquity of the three act structure. (Or, I watched too much Star Wars as a kid; either one fits.) It was the chapter where events occur but it’s unclear which way the story is actually going, beyond stakes being raised and an increased sense of foreboding for an eventual resolution being felt by all involved. If fans didn’t want to sign up to creator newsletters and store owners would rather pay more to deal with familiar distributors, was this an Empire Striking Back? And, if so, who were the Rebels in this analogy? (See? It was Star Wars after all.)
Viewed from that perspective, 2022 immediately seems a lot more intriguing, if only by implication. Is this the final chapter, or merely an extension of 2021’s second installment? Are we going to see more big moves from players both expected and brand new, in attempts to shape whatever the future of comics is going to be — and, given the outsize influence comics can have on TV and movies, the rest of pop culture as well? Given what’s been happening in the past couple of years, and the as-yet-unfinished aftershocks of all of that, it seems almost impossible that this is going to be a year of same-old, same-old… but at the same time, it feels similarly unlikely that anyone will be able to predict exactly what’s going to happen across the next 12 months, or beyond that.
All of which means that it’s a good time to start a comics journalism newsletter, right?