By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
Returning to the world of comics, graphic novels and superheroes after a four-month hiatus feels somewhat daunting. Comics have become one of the dominant forces in modern pop culture, meaning that it was inevitable that I would face a landslide of content to begin. So, instead of stretching out the summer for another few weeks, I thought I would do a massive recap of some summer highlights that underline the big themes going into the fall.
Let’s start with the creme of the comic crop: the films. Unfortunately, with Captain America bowing out just as school ended last year, this summer slate was particularly disappointing. “X-men: Apocalypse” was first up to bat, and though it has its ardent defenders, the film effectively drained any good will left from “X-Men: First Class.” With “Deadpool” turning out to be a cash cow, it seems Fox is content with letting the main series run in place as Bryan Singer is not built for blockbuster filmmaking. It’s not even bad enough to be particularly interesting.
Now, if there’s a film that learned some good lessons from Marvel Studios, it was “Suicide Squad”: that endearing characters can help a film overcome a lot. Because make no mistake, Suicide Squad is a bad film, editing and hacked into oblivion and incoherence by a studio desperate for a hit who quit on whatever vision they had for the film by the time the second trailer came out. But between Will Smith, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie and the rest of the gang, there is enough charm in the characters that you can largely ignore how genuinely awful 70 percent of the film is. But that doesn’t change the fact that with three critical duds, the DCEU might be poisoned beyond repair at this point.
But surprisingly, the nadir of this film season was in the animated field. Batman: The Killing Joke was being sold as the R-rated adaptation of the iconic Joker story-line. While the film being bad should have been a hard lesson about the follies of glorifying a dated, dour comic that was disowned by its own creator, it somehow went the extra mile with even more of what people hated about it, namely the bitter misogyny. From a book famous for it’s horrible treatment of its one female character, they decided to make Batgirl’s arc that of the jaded lover punished for her romantic leanings. In an medium noted for its growing progress, this was a hard step back.
But fortunately, that progress and hope continue to flourish elsewhere. Marvel has added to its growing list of diverse and youthful heroes with Riri Williams, who will be taking over the Iron Man suit as “Ironheart.” While the idea of giving a 15 year old access to a weapon of mass destruction is… concerning… it’s genuinely exciting to see Marvel continue to commit its signature mantels to recapturing the youthful and diverse spirit Spider-Man and the X-Men once brought to previous generations of readers. And Marvel recently announced that Roxane Gay would be the first black female writer for the company, a long overdue milestone that diversity isn’t limited to what’s on the pages.
Disney too is joining in the diversity with Rocketeers, a sequel to the under-appreciated classic Rocketeer with a black woman taking up the jet-pack during the Cold War. As someone patiently awaiting a sequel for years, seeing it build on the lore of the previous film is genuinely electrifying.
And even if DC’s film slate has been dour and disappointing, it’s comic slate has been seeing a Renaissance of hope. The Rebirth series, which has been Geoff Johns’ pet project to bring back Silver Age optimism to the DC, ended up selling like gangbusters, a positive sign that the audience is finally pushing back against the Dark Age that has overwhelmed comics.
Beyond superheroes, the entire industry is facing a boom of vibrant and exciting titles. Bryan Lee O’Malley has a regular series in Snot Girl and announced a brand new graphic novel titled Worst World at Comic-Con. The LumberJanes continue to be delightful while crossing over with DC’s Gotham Academy as well as continuing their own continuity. The Walking Dead finally made it to issue 150. And with Paper Girls becoming available in trade, there is no excuse not to read it now (seriously, read it). How good is the slate of comic books right now? Archie is two years into its “realistic” reboot with “mature” story lines, and people love it.
If there was one overarching message to this summer, it was hope and optimism. The sheer amount of great content on paper, television and (usually) film is ensuring that the presence of the industry is impossible to ignore. And more importantly, people are enthusiastically enjoying this content. Statistics have shown that the comic book industry had its biggest profits since 1996, just before the market crashed and doomed the medium to irrelevancy. What’s more, up to 100 new comic stores were opened this year alone.
There’s a reason why I opened by complaining about the films because in the grand scheme of things, they don’t necessarily matter. Because the industry is in a place now where comics as a medium can survive on their own. They’ve cast a bigger net than ever before, bringing in an excited, diverse audience ecstatic for new content. By bringing in fresh voices and committing to telling new stories, they’ve made comic books an art form for everyone.
In the past decade, we’ve seen an extraordinary transition. An obsessive commitment to grittiness and darkness helped crash the industry and paint it as a very isolated hobby for a very small minority of people. This summer was the fullest realization of an industry wide Renaissance, a commitment to color, fun and hope that is bringing the industry back to life like never before, and creating a new generation of readers who will hopefully keep it that way. It’s that youthful energy that makes me utterly excited for the upcoming fall, as well as the one after that and the one after that.