The new golden age of comics: we talk to the writers and artists inking the changes
Nothing kills the excitement of a pop culture phenomenon like proclaiming that is has grown up. The last time this happened to the lurid, fast-paced, gleefully disreputable world of comics, in the late 1980s, the adoption of adult themes and situations turned out to be a blind alley. Classics such as Alan Moores superhero deconstruction Watchmen and his anarchist thriller V for Vendetta, or Frank Millers brutalist take on Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, would stand the test of time (V becoming an often misunderstood handbook for the Occupy and Anonymous movements). The problem was, nothing came afterwards. Instead of inspiring new directions for comics, these books only led to ever-decreasing iterations of the dark, the anguished, the adolescent and the angry.
Thirty years later, however, were the midst of a new golden age for stories with pictures and this time feels very different. Comics are defiantly not growing up. Instead, they are growing outwards, reaching wider audiences than either the stereotypical lone male comics fan in his ill-fitting Wolverine T-shirt, or the literary graphic novel reader with their well-thumbed copies of Maus, Palestine and A Contract With God. There are more women writers and artists, and more diverse creators in general, working in the medium. The best books are fuelled by the pulpy, pop-art immediacy and sense of wonder that make the form so addictive in the first place. And by adapting the biggest characters for movie franchises that have dominated box offices over the past 15 years, Hollywood has brought new readers to comics and allowed writers and artists to move away from comics obsession with superheroes.
Todays most exciting comics concern a broader, more accessible spread of themes than the super-books endless exploration of power and its consequences. There are family tales and war diaries, wry teen dramas and classical literary adaptations, cleverly constructed soap operas disguised as pulp adventures, parallel-reality capers or interspatial escapades. Like conventional fiction, they are for everyone. The world of comics in 2016 resembles the music business in 1977-1980, when agile indie labels such as Rough Trade and Factory outmanoeuvred the major record companies and the majors were forced to respond.
Though superhero books from the big two publishers, Marvel and DC, still dominate the sales charts, titles from independent publishers such as Image, IDW, Boom! Studios and Dynamite are making the creative running. They may lack the branding advantage of 70-year-old proprietary characters such as Iron Man or Superman but their sales figures would be the envy of many a consumer magazine or book publisher. The first issue of writer Brian K Vaughans suburban sci-fi story Paper Girls sold approximately 75,000 copies on Vaughans name alone; the fifth collected volume of his space opera Saga sold more than 29,000 copies in its first month. And thats not including the unquantified contribution of on-demand sales of digital comics to phones and tablets.
What were seeing is that comics used to be a genre and now theyre finally being accepted as a medium, says Leah Moore, daughter of Alan, who writes for the 2000 AD weekly and the comics adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Its getting to the point where saying you dont like comics will make as little sense as saying you dont like novels or movies.
Steve Walsh of Gosh! Comics in Berwick Street, London, concurs. Weve always offered a wider range than the straightforward superhero stuff so weve always had a diverse customer base, he says. But even we have noticed more women and younger people coming in, looking for somewhere to start with comics. Its really exciting.
Leading the new wave is the runaway hit space opera Saga by Canadian artist Fiona Staples and the aforementioned Brian K Vaughan, US writer and one-time co-producer of TVs Lost. Though cosmic in scope, full of weird sex and peopled by humanoid spider assassins and robot royalty with TVs for heads, Saga tells the remarkably touching and often very funny family story of Alana and Marko shes got wings and shes from the science planet; hes got horns and hes from the magic planet and the child they attempt to raise together. Its Romeo and Juliet in space and probably the easiest entry point to the new world of comics; any Game of Thrones fan will find themselves instantly at home. The series wide appeal rests in no small part on Stapless gorgeously organic and painterly artwork, which brings a believable humanity to her fantasy environments and is about as far from stereotypically muscular comic art as can be imagined.
Its fascinating to hear that Saga is so many peoples first comic, says Vaughan, because I created it at a time when I was very frustrated with film and TV and I just wanted to do something for myself. Id just become a father and I wanted to Trojan horse those feelings and emotions inside an epic, unfilmable space opera, instead of boring everyone about my kids.
The first issue opens with a woman giving birth and saying, Am I shitting? It feels like Im shitting. The books got naked robots with sexual dysfunction. Being the go-to comic for new readers is an awful responsibility to bear. Its gotten a wider audience than we could ever have dreamed of and its all down to Fiona. It takes an artist of genius to make inaccessible ideas relatable. She turned a story for no one into a story for just about everyone.
If your first comic series isnt Saga, then its likely to be The Wicked + The Divine, a densely packed and visually delicious London-set fantasy by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie. Rooted more closely in pop and rock fan culture than comics lore its been billed as a book for people who love Bowie as much as Batman WicDiv concerns the recurring reincarnation of a pantheon of gods in human form. They become objects of limitless adulation and then die within two years.
This being the 21st century, the current cycle of gods reincarnates as pop stars modelled on Prince, Kanye West, Florence Welch and others. A fascinating metaphor for youth, fame and creativity, the series has a fanatical fanbase and an instinctive connection with the currents of social media: recent issues have concerned online hate-mobs. It is fiercely modern, gloriously pretentious and McKelvies clean, pop-art storytelling ensures that, again, it doesnt look like any comic book youve ever seen.
The core of the book is that my dad died when I was 38 looking at turning 40, explains Gillen, a former games journalist turned prolific comics writer who has written for the Thor, X-Men and Iron Man series for Marvel. He began collaborating with McKelvie in 2006 on Phonogram, a comic that explored the notion that pop records could contain the essence of actual, functional magic. The Wicked + The Divine is about life being short, he says. If you know youre going to die, as we all do, then why actually do anything? Why create? Its me interrogating my midlife crisis.
Among other achievements WicDiv has won praise for its racially and sexually diverse cast, including mainly female characters, a bisexual R&B star, a trans character whose storyline isnt dictated by her sexuality, and a Bowie-like female Lucifer. It does weird us out when were called a feminist comic book, says McKelvie. It feels like were getting a cookie for what should be the bare acceptable minimum.
We read and advocate a lot of feminism, adds Gillen, but we wanted the book to look like London and reflect all the people in our lives. That writing women this way is seen as a feminist act is probably more depressing than anything.
Like music and film, the new comics scene has become a battlefield in the gender debate. In January, the French comics festival Angoulême faced a boycott from writers and artists when it initially failed to nominate a single woman for any of its awards categories. A certain sector of male readers will always complain whenever a female characters costume is redesigned to show less flesh and thus more suitability for fighting robots in outer space. (Google practical costumes to read angry exchanges on this subject.) But its doubtful that any current book hits the feminist spot like the prison drama Bitch Planet by American writer Kelly Sue DeConnick. Its set in an offworld womens penal colony where an avowedly misogynist future society sends its non-compliant women: killers, thieves and those who simply talk back. There are no hugs and learnings but there are plenty of horrible deaths and all the men are bastards. It is literally a riot.
Orange Is the New Black in space wasnt my line, but Ill take it, says DeConnick. I wanted to do a really mean satire with a nasty sense of humour and a fanzine feel, hence Valentine [De Landro]s incredible artwork. DeConnick wrote Bitch Planet, she explains, after experiencing something of a backlash after reinventing swimsuit-wearing 70s comic book heroine Ms Marvel as Captain Marvel: an altogether cooler soldier type with a new, non-gender specific name and, yes, a practical uniform (designed by WicDivs Jamie McKelvie). The overwhelming majority of readers loved Captain Marvel but I had a few guys saying I was ruining comics with my horrible feminist agenda. I thought, if you think thats heavy handed, you aint seen nothing yet.
Where are all these new readers coming from? There are now numerous entry points to the new comics universe. The Marvel movies opened the door for many. The rise of independent company Image Comics, which puts out WicDiv, Bitch Planet, Saga and the globally successful series The Walking Dead, into the third-biggest comics publisher after Marvel and DC has helped. (Founded in 1992, Image was mostly known for conventional horror and superhero titles until around 2008, when it began publishing less easily categorised, creator-led comics to sudden acclaim.) But the arrival of smartphones and digital comics apps such as Comixology has been key to making comics more accessible.
If youve got an iPhone now, youve got a comics store in your pocket, says Brian K Vaughan. You dont need to take that daunting step into a comic book store or even find one. You can just download whatever interests you wherever you are. Instantaneously, we had more female readers than ever before, like, overnight. Nearly a third of Sagas sales are digital now, which is incomprehensible to me.
Above all, theres been a geeking of pop culture. Manga, Marvel, cosplay, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Adventure Time, the new Star Trek, The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, online gaming, Star Wars, Game of Thrones in all these fandoms you can find a place to build your identity. And if they didnt come from comics, therell be a comic about them.
When the first graphic novel boom happened in the late 80s, there just wasnt enough stuff around, admits Kieron Gillen. Youd read Watchmen, Sandman and The Dark Knight Returns but there wasnt much further to go. Now its like discovering records when youre 25. Theres 100 years of stuff to discover and its all available. You can just dive in.
The ripples of the comics revolution continue to spread outwards. WicDiv and Unfollow by Welsh writer Rob Williams have been optioned for TV. Game of Thrones owes its look to chief storyboard artist Will Simpson, the veteran Northern Irish comics artist whos drawn Judge Dredd and Batman. The unmistakable visual insanity of Mad Max: Fury Road, as much a magnificent hallucination as a narrative work, sprang from the mind of 2000 AD artist Brendan McCarthy. Things look bright for comics endlessly renewable visions on the fantastical. Just not for superheroes.
I suspect that heroes are going to phase out, says Mark Millar, the Scottish writer whose early 00s Marvel series The Ultimates was the foundation for The Avengers movies and thus the entire Marvel cinematic universe. If were not at superhero saturation point yet, then were very close to it. Those characters made a lot of sense in the middle of war and economic crisis, when fear and uncertainty draw you to heroic figures who can put things right. But that moment cant last forever. Post-Star Wars, I think were going to see the return of upbeat, family-friendly science fiction.
He is already preparing his own post-superhero book, a space opera entitled Empress. Imagine you married some intergalactic tyrant, like Ming the Merciless, and you realise youve got to get out of this. Its Kramer vs Kramer in space.
Meanwhile, like great punk singles in 1977 or great house records in 1988, a great new comic book comes out every week. You could have one on your phone right now. Comics people are depressive people, says Kieron Gillen. We always think the glass is half empty. But this is what winning feels like.
Kelly Sue DeConnick: Comics were part of the air force culture I grew up in
The Portland-based writer has won a reputation for wit, excitement and controversy with comics that combine feminist ideas and straight-up pulp entertainment. DeConnicks gothic western horror series Pretty Deadly created a cast of terrifying frontier women, and she reinvented Marvel Comics much-mishandled Ms Marvel a second-string member of The Avengers since 1979 by giving her a military attitude and the non-gender-specific mantle of Captain Marvel. (The character will star in Marvel Studios first female-led movie in 2019.) DeConnicks womens prison sci-fi drama Bitch Planet has been described as Orange Is the New Black in space.
Before writing comics, DeConnick spent 10 years translating Japanese dialogue into English for a small manga publisher. Unsurprisingly, snappy dialogue is one of her many strong points. She has one unfortunate villain yell: Lucky me! If it aint Captain Americas secretary, Mrs Marvel! and live to regret it.
Why did you want to write comics?
I grew up on air-force bases in Germany and Japan and we didnt always have American TV. Comics were very much part of base culture. People who are drawn to service are also drawn to entertainment thats based on ideas of heroism. So I read a lot, I saved up my allowance and my mum would give me Wonder Woman comics as rewards for doing chores. It never occurred to me that people did this for a living. I feel as though I fell into it backwards.
Your breakthrough was relaunching Ms Marvel as the A-list character Captain Marvel. Do you think her success, and the passionate fanbase she gathered, changed comics?
I was lucky enough to be part of a movement with that book. We werent alone in wanting to do what we did and it really resonated with people. My husband [the comics writer Matt Fraction] is fond of saying we had 20,000 readers but 19,000 of them got tattoos based on the book. Plus I felt an affinity for the characters air-force background. My dads a pilot and flight as a metaphor has always been important to me.
What is bringing women into the comics world as readers and creators?
Actually, in the 40s and 50s, there were comics aimed at women [such as My Date, Lovers Lane or Girls Life] which sold 500,000 copies a month. That tends to get written out of history. In the 80s, comics were treated as loss leaders to sell toys to boys and a ton of women just fell away. You dont want to read something that actively insults your gender. So I dont think what is happening is new were just getting back to the way it should be.
Does it get tiring to be asked about women in comics all the time?
Yes and no. If the problem was fixed we could stop talking about it. Comics are not the only industry that has problems of sexism and inequality but at least were having the conversation, right? I do get testy when people ask me how to write female characters, though. That question is emblematic of tragic thinking. My answer is, usually: Pretend theyre people.
Fiona Staples: I never thought Id do a full series
Voted the best female comics artist of all time in a major fan poll at ComicBookResources.com in 2015, Fiona Staples lives and works in Calgary, Canada, where she was born. Her fluid lines, expressive characters and facility with the bizarre have made her enormously popular Staples is one of only a few women artists whose work and name can sell a book on its own.
Her best-known series is the dazzling space opera Saga (2012-ongoing), the story of two deserting soldiers from warring planets who fall in love, have a baby and end up with the whole galaxy on their tails. Writer Brian K Vaughan asked her to draw it as an equal co-creator rather than an artist for hire.
Shes completely unlike any other comics artist, says Vaughan. You cant tell where this person came from. Staples has also relaunched the 75-year-old high-school comic Archie to huge acclaim, redesigning its folksy characters for the era of smartphones and social media.
All the most exciting comics right now seem to come from outsiders or latecomers to the medium. Is that true of you?
Yes, I didnt really grow up with comics. Originally, I wanted to be a designer of some sort. Id read Archie and Tintin as a little kid. It wasnt until high school that I started reading X-Men and Iron Man, plus some comics with female leads like Tank Girl and Love and Rockets, and I began thinking that I could do this.
Your artwork doesnt look like anyone elses. Where does it come from?
When I started out, I copied pretty much every comics artist that I liked. I was really into anime and video games. My art teachers frowned on all this, but studying sculpture and graphic design and painting on my foundation year was really useful. I just tried to study a lot and incorporate it into my work.
Starting Saga, an enormous, multi-year epic, must have been a massive step
I never thought Id do a full ongoing series I thought Id get bored. But when Brian emailed me about Saga I was really excited. He said it would be a really long space-opera epic that takes place over the lifetime of Hazel, the main character. It was a huge commitment, obviously, but I was a big fan of his books Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and Pride of Baghdad and I felt ready to do something big.
Theres an awful lot of weird sexual imagery in Saga.
I dont mind drawing the explicit sexual stuff. Sex is just another part of life that we want to represent. Its natural and beautiful. Even sex with giant spiders.
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie: Book publishers would kill for our sales figures
The duo behind the hit fantasy series The Wicked + The Divine, first published in June 2014, came late to comics. Writer Kieron Gillen was born in Stafford in 1975 and spent many years as a video games journalist before moving into comics in the early 00s. He has since become enormously prolific, writing Thor, X-Men and Iron Man for Marvel, plus a string of his own comics including the Nazi superhuman series Über.
Artist Jamie McKelvie, born 1980, grew up in Malvern and London. He discovered comics when his cousin, now a member of the drumnbass outfit Bad Company, lent him copies of the notorious British weekly 2000 AD at far too young an age, but then drifted away.
Since returning to comics, hes developed a uniquely beautiful, uncluttered style. Gillen and McKelvies first collaboration was Phonogram, a Britpop fantasy in which songs have occult powers; it ran from 2006 and ended last month.
Why are independent comics booming now?
Gillen: One reason is that people who grew up reading Sandman or Watchmen are now in positions of power. They can influence peoples thinking about comics. The manga boom of the early 00s brought a lot of women into comics and, of course, the movies helped. But it takes a long time.
Does it help that the current hit books are beautiful things to look at? They dont look like ugly, macho stuff for teenage boys
McKelvie: Comics lost readers in the 90s partly because the art was so insular. Artists were looking purely at other superhero comics and not the outside world. Marvel became so successful in the 60s because it did look at the outside world. It was very pop culture. The grim and gritty 90s thing is actually a teenage idea of what adult content is.
Is it important to you to recruit readers from outside the comics audience?
Gillen: We want to do work thats less obviously in its ghetto. We want our books to be more accessible, more emotionally and intellectually sophisticated. The book publishing industry would kill for our sales figures. We did 100,000 copies of the first collected volume of The Wicked + The Divine, and thats a lot. So its cult, but its big.
McKelvie: We also went into WicDiv knowing it would be probably the last big thing we do together in comics, so we wanted it to matter. Comics is a weird career. Theres a plateau in what you can earn. So we want to do other things too. Ive got my first directing job soon.
Gillen: For WicDiv, we sat down and designed a cult from the ground up. I feel a little guilty about it, to be honest.
Ten comics to get you started, guaranteed superhero-free (mostly)
Two soldiers from warring planets fall in love, have a child and are chased across the universe. Magnificent space opera.
Hairy 70s rock band Mother/Father pretend to sell their soul to Satan, then discover theyve really done a deal with the devil. Occult satire.
An anarchist scientist and his family wander alternative universes in a desperate attempt to return home in this pulp-inspired riff on Lost in Space.
Gods as pop stars and pop stars as gods in this electrifying fantasy set in modern London.
An alternate story of the second world war in which the superpowered royal families contest the fate of Europe.
Exploitation thrills 1970s-style with the caged and enraged inmates of a womens prison in space.
7 | Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds by Ian Edginton and INJ Culbard
(2000AD Graphic Novels)
A universe built as an actual working clock faces destruction in this visionary steampunk series.
Low-key storytelling and stunning art in the story of what the guy with a bow and arrow does when hes not in The Avengers.
Teen anguish and conspiracy at an American private school with a dark secret a book that mixes Heathers with C4s Misfits.
10 | Ex Machina Vol 1 by Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris
What if the mayor of New York were a retired superhero? The West Wing meets Lost in this 00s classic.
Read more: www.theguardian.com