We're getting back to our waffly roots this week, not just posting news stories. Because over the last few weeks, a couple of in store conversations, as well as some interaction we've had online in both our professional and personal capacities, have made us think.
I keep hearing - particularly online - that "comics just aren't as good as they used to be". And I'm always surprised by such comments because I'm firmly of the view that we're in the middle of something of a golden age. I mean, there is so much excellent stuff out there right now it's almost impossible to read even a significant fraction of it. I've been into comics in a serious way for more than thirty years now and I am being absolutely serious when I say that I cannot recall a time when the general standard of Anglophone comics has been higher.
(And trust me, I do not say this lightly - I started reading comics around the time Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, Year One and Man Without Fear were being published. My bar for "best time for comics I can remember is very very high).
There are, of course, a couple of factors driving the idea that "comics have gone to the dogs". Pseudo political/ideological "movements" like Comicsgate* need to believe that comics are terrible right now, because they don't like the ideas and values which dominate in the medium at the moment. Others are merely nostalgic - wishing that the comics of today were more like the comics they grew up with in the eighties, or nineties, or whenever they happened to be young.
But frankly, that doesn't explain the phenomenon because most people don't belong to either of those groups. So why do so many people think that the quality of the comics available has gone down?
It's simple, really. People are looking at the wrong comics.
To be clear - I don't think that there are very many genuinely bad comics out there. The market simply won't allow poor quality comics to exist for very long. There are too many talented people pitching too many brilliant ideas to too few companies in a market where potential supply outstrips demand by several orders of magnitude, and there are too many barriers to entry for anything truly mediocre to survive for long.
No, the perceived problem of low quality seems to me to be more a question of taste. People are seeing comics that don't appeal to them and concluding that they are bad, when in fact, they just don't dig that kind of story or that kind of art.
Let's look at Batman as an example. Regular readers will know that I bow to nobody in my admiration of Tom King as a writer. I maintain that his recent eighty five issue run on the title is possibly the best Batman run I have read in the thirty-odd years I've been reading the book. But a lot of people hated it.
King's writing isn't perfect (he really doesn't write women terribly well, and I was not a fan of the way he used Poison Ivy), but (and I'm speaking as an English Teacher now) there's no argument that he's a bad writer. He just isn't. What people didn't like was the direction he took the characters he was writing and/or they didn't like the pacing. Both of these are matters of taste, and there are no right or wrong opinions in such cases.
There were those who didn't like the whole Bat/Cat romance - and that's not an unreasonable position to take. While I myself am a romantic soul who loves all that stuff, I also acknowledge that the Dark Knight is at best when he's alone - I started reading Batman regularly between the death of Jason Todd (Robin II) and the arrival of Tim Drake (Robin III), so I really do appreciate a solo Batman.
And the people who didn't like that relationship are in good company. There's an excellent interview with Denny O'Neil on the Word Balloon podcast in which O'Neil - to my mind possibly the best Batman writer of all time and without question the best Editor the batbooks ever had - is pretty vocal in his opinion that putting Batman in any kind of romantic relationship is a terrible idea.
Then there was the pacing. If you're reading comics because you want heart pounding action, King's Batman run isn't for you. Many of the story arcs are almost cartoonishly slooooooooooow. The fourth arc, The War of Jokes and Riddles took eight issues - four months in real time - to tell a story whose ultimate point came down to one page in the eighth part. I completely get that some people might not have patience with that kind of thing, however much I personally loved it.
I guess what I'm saying is that it's easy to assume that when we don't like something it's because that thing is bad, and that the people who do like it are wrong - or even stupid - for doing so. If you want to see that sort of attitude in action just look at pretty much any discussion about anything on social media...
And I get it, I do. Sometimes having a good old moan fest with some like minded people can be cathartic - even fun. But there are more positive ways to proceed that perhaps lead to greater happiness. If you're not enjoying Batman, or Spider-Man, or whatever it is that you're not enjoying try doing something radical.
Stop reading comics you're not enjoying.
Seriously. It's allowed.
It's always struck me as odd that comics fans** often seem unaware of this - and it's not a new phenomenon. I remember an incident at the first Comics Convention I ever attended (UK Comic Art Convention '94. Yes, I am very old...). It was a sort of open forum discussion and there was a guy, mid-twenties I would have said, who was absolutely furious that the Spider-Man books were so bad. (This was the mid-nineties, so nobody was disagreeing with him...)
But his anger wasn't rooted in his lack of enjoyment of the comics. No, it was entirely rooted in the fact that Marvel was forcing him to waste his money on rubbish he knew he'd hate. It was suggested to him that he wasn't being forced to spend his money on anything, and he could just not buy the books.
"Don't be stupid - I'm a Spider-Man fan!"
Now, before anybody says anything I have to acknowledge that I'm guilty of doing exactly this with Batman. I've bought pretty much everything that has Batman in it since April 1989. I'm not going to pretend that I loved every page of that - but in my defence Batman is the only character I do this with - and even with Batman I'm beginning to break the habit - and it's a good habit to break.
Because however much we wish it wasn't so, our budgets and time are finite. Heck, I own a comic store, and even I can't read an unlimited number of comics. None of us can. So if you're spending part of your comics budget on stuff you're not enjoying, you're not just chucking perfectly good money against the wall, you're missing out!
Surely far better, if there's a title you've always read that just isn't doing it for you anymore, to dump that title (for a bit - you can always come back to it later) and try something new? So many people never look beyond the "big two". Even more might give the odd Image or Dark Horse book a try, but wouldn't ever consider checking out the wealth of content from the smaller indie publishers - let alone considering the truly independent small press creators.
And that's a real shame because there is a vast array of quality storytelling coming out of the smaller, newer publishers. Regular readers will know this, because comics from the likes of Aftershock, BOOM!, Black Mask, Vault and others have featured heavily in our picks of the week over the last couple of years.
Aftershock is perhaps best known for the "Animal Apocalypse" epic Animosity, which started back in 2016. The elevator pitch for this would be "Like the Walking Dead, but it's not zombies it's talking animals", but that doesn't do the story sufficient credit. In the world of Animosity, at one instant, all across the globe every animal - right down to plankton - became self aware, human level intelligent and able to talk.
Human society barely survived the shock as the animal population of the globe realised that humans had been horribly mistreating them, and that the humans were out numbered. Cities fell. Survivours in various places set up new communities, sometimes with cooperation between humans and animals, some with humans trying to exclude animals, some where one side seeks to dominate and enslave the other.
Against this background Jesse, a young girl who lost her parents in the chaos that followed the "wake" and her loyal dog Sandor attempt to make their way across America from New York to California to find her much older half-brother, the only family she has left. It's a gloriously original take on the sort of "collapse of civilisation" stories that have become so common. The settlements that Jesse, Sandor and the other characters who join them along their journey come across are all too plausible - whether they are utopian or dystopian in nature. It's a book that will draw you in with a solid story, and then make you think by challenging your pre-conceptions.
Or there's the dual narrative Western Undone by Blood, set both in the nineteenth century and the nineteen seventies, it's a revenge quest that has recently been optioned for TV. Or the James Bond spoof Jimmy's Bastards. Or Dark Ark, the story of the other Ark. The one that Satan ordered to be built to save the monsters from the great flood. And that's not even scratching the surface.
BOOM! Studios - which also publishes under the imprints "BOOM Box" and "KaBoom!" is similarly diverse. It has a range of sports based titles, SLAM! (Roller Derby), Fence! (Fencing), Dodge City (Dodgeball) and The Avant Guards (Basketball) - none of which are really about their respective sports, but about friendship, determination, loyalty and all that stuff. I confess to a particular fondness for SLAM!, from which I learned everything I know about Roller Derby...
But it's not just sports. There's also the modern Arthurian adventure of Once and Future, The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, the surreal King of Nowhere epic science fiction as wildcatters mine the bodies of dead gods in We Only Find them When they're Dead and so very much more.
Vault offers a similarly broad range of Science Fiction, Fantasy and horror. There's the lesbian Viking hero quest fantasy of Heathen, as Aydis, a young warrior cast out of her clan for loving another woman embarks on a quest to rescue a Valkyrie from the volcano where Odin imprisoned her. In a lesser book that quest would have been at least the first story arc. Here Aydis gets it done in the first twenty or so pages, before setting out to challenge the power of the Norse gods themselves.
It's epic, thought provoking, a little bit sexy and gorgeous to look at, with the delicate spidery art style of series creator Natasha Alterici giving an air of vulnerability to her determined and indefatigable heroine.
There's more sweeping fantasy from Sera and the Royal Stars and The Necromancer's Map. Or if horror is more your thing there is the dark tale of vampirism in India These Savage Shores, which looks at the vampire myth outside of the European tradition - or the claustrophobic haunted family nightmare of The Plot.
I could go on. I could go on a lot.
The wealth of quality and variety that is available in modern comics is, as I said earlier, greater than I think it's ever been. It's just that it's spread out across several smaller publishers you might not have heard of instead of being concentrated at Marvel and DC. You might have to look for it - but that's where local comic shops come in. One of the main purposes of Destination Venus is to use our knowledge of what's out there to match customers up with content they'll love - to introduce people to comics they might never have heard of if we hadn't recommended them.
In short, we're more effective than an algorithm, which is why your local comic shop can offer a better service than certain internet based companies we could mention.
So. If you're currently spending a party of your comics budget on comics you've always bought but are no longer enjoying, go exploring. We're happy to be your guide.
*You either know what Comicsgate is or you don't. If you don't, I would urge you to cherish that gap in your knowledge.
**I don't know if comics readers are the only collectors who do this, but we do do it.