by Aaron Einhorn
Is it really that time of year already? This past rotation around the sun has gone by awfully quick, but the weather is getting colder around these parts, the holiday music is playing, and the plans have been made for New Year’s Eve, so I guess it really is. 2011 is almost history, and 2012 is on the horizon. And this past year has been a big one for superhero fans. We’ve had superheroes make news in a multitude of ways, and if some of the biggest developments in the superhero world are still being held off for another year (like the release of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises), it’s still been a remarkable past twelve months. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the biggest events from the past twelve months (and I don’t mean Fear Itself or Flashpoint).
10) Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark Finally Opens
Now, on the surface, this seems like a stange entry in to the list. After all, the opening of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was plagued by disaster after disaster, with numerous injuries during the previews and early performances, the exit of director Julie Taymor, poor reviews of the show, a soundtrack that many have called uninspired, and delay after delay after delay.
But, eventually, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark did open, and the show is now in regular performances – not just extended previews. In other words, for the first time ever, there is a Marvel Comics-based musical on the Great White Way. This is significant. Despite several attempts at a Batman musical, and a Superman musical from the seventies, musical theatre had previously been one area that superheroes were largely absent from. With the successful (sort of) debut of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, there is now no form of media where superheroes don’t have a presence.
Well, there’s one at the moment. Which brings us to…
9) Smallville Comes to An End After Ten Years – And Nothing Replaces It
Ten years ago, The WB (before there was a CW Network) brought us a show about Clark Kent before he became Superman. Set in his hometown, this series brilliantly cast Tom Welling as Clark Kent and Michael Rosenbaum as a young Lex Luthor, and gave us a glimpse of an unlikely friendship forming between the world’s greatest hero and his most deadly rival. With some amazingly strong actors in the supporting cast (yeah, I’m looking at you Annette O’Toole, Jonathan Snyder, John Glover and Allison Mack), Smallville gave us ten years of superheroic action on-screen.
To be fair, the show was uneven. Some seasons went terribly off the rails, some plot arcs were poorly conceived, some guests were underutilized, and the show’s marriage to the “No flights, no tights” rule was clearly outdated by the time we had regular guest appearances from other heroes in costume, and when there were dozens of Kryptonians flying around. But for ever stumble, there were amazing triumphs. Erica Durrance and Justin Hartley were incredibly potent additions to the cast as Lois Lane and Oliver Queen/Green Arrow. And the show paid incredible tribute to the Superman films and television shows of the past, with guest appearances by Christopher Reeve, Helen Slater, Dean Cain, Terri Hatcher, the voice of Terrence Stamp, and many others.
Love it or hate it, Smallville was a highly visible spot for superheroes in the homes of Americans for the past decade. And this past May, that came to an end with a finale that generally satisfied. But then something really amazing happened.
Nothing replaced it.
To be sure, there will be new live-action superhero shows. Both original creations like Misfits and Alphas and the now-canceled No Ordinary Family and The Cape, and future adaptations like ABC’s The Incredible Hulk and AKA Jessica Jones. But when NBC passed on the pilot for Wonder Woman, we were faced with a fall television line-up without a single live-action superhero show on non-cable television. Actually, with the cancellation of Human Target, we actually found ourselves without a single live-action comic adaptation as well. It was surprisingly sobering for me when I planned out the TiVo this fall and realized that fact.
8) Superhero Video Games Go Big-Time With Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Batman: Arkham City, Spider-Man: Edge of Time and MMOs
If superheroes left our television sets this fall, they made sure to pop up on our video game consoles and computer screens. Superhero games this year were some of the biggest games that hit the landscape, and none was bigger than the latest fighting game extravaganza in the form of Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds. Capcom has been creating fighting games using the Marvel heroes for years and years, and their “Vs” series pitting Marvel characters against their home-grown characters have been among their biggest hits. In many ways, they outdid themselves with Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and reception was so strong that less than nine months later, they released Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, adding in dozens of new characters, including such oddball choices as Rocket Racoon and Phoenix Wright.
And that was hardly the only notable video game this year. Batman: Arkham City promised to outdo the critically acclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum, and while I haven’t played it myself, by all accounts, they’ve succeeded. Dozens of costume skins, additional content playing Robin and Nightwing and Catwoman, and the promise of a threequel have only made certain that we’ll be seeing more of the Arkham franchise in the future.
Marvel released a pair of solid, if uninspiring games in the form of X-Men: Destiny and Spider-Man: Edge of Time, the non-branded Power-up Heroes gave Kinect users the opportunity to become a superhero, and that’s just the world of console games.
Superheroes have existed in MMO form ever since the debut of City of Heroes in 2004. More recently, HERO Games’ Champions came to life with Champions Online, and in the past year, Sony and DC finally brought DC Universe Online to life. This is all great, but what is astonishing is that in the past year, all three games have gone Free-to-Play, following the more recent trend of relying on microtransactions to replace subscription fees. Each game still has a subscription option, of course, but by going Free-to-Play, the audience for these games has grown immensely. I’ve had a lifetime subscription to Champions Online, but when City of Heroes went free-to-play, I found myself drawn back to Paragon City, and the game is far more active than I remember it from before I left.
7) Wizard Magazine Goes Away… Twice
The last few years have brought us a serious decline in the once-proud world of Wizard Entertainment. There was a time – not so long ago – that people relied on Wizard as their source for comic book and superhero news. I eagerly looked forward to each issue of the magazine, and I have a collection of back issues going back to the first days of publication.
Then something happened. It was called the internet. Sites like Newsarama, Comic Book Resources and, yes, Comic Hero News had made the publication of a monthly magazine about comics obsolete, and with the elimination of the monthly price guide, there was little reason to pick up the magazine.
Similarly, Wizard’s involvement with conventions suffered greatly in just the past few years. If you go back a decade, outside of the San Diego Comic-Con, the Wizard World conventions were actually among the biggest events for comic fans. There were big regional conventions, Wonder*Con, DragonCon, MegaCon, and more recently, ReedPop brought us the New York Comic Con, but the Wizard Conventions were a big deal, and they had the support of the major publishers.
That all changed just a few years back when ReedPop and Wizard got into their pissing match over the timing of C2E2 and Wizard’s Chicago ComicCon, and then the Big Apple Comic Con and NYCC. It was a classic showdown, and the major publishers largely sided with ReedPop – meaning that now if you attend a Wizard con, you won’t see a booth for Marvel, DC or Image.
Between the rise of the internet and the suffering of their convention division, Wizard ceased publication of their print magazines early this year, moving to an online-only format. Just in the past two months, even their online magazine has gone belly up, and Gareb Shamus has resigned from Wizard Entertainment.
Expect to still see Wizard World Comic-Cons across the country for the next several years, but the giant has collapsed, and while younger readers may not remember it as fondly, older fans who lived for those monthly news updates can’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia for the passing of the magazine.
6) Superhero Parodies Explode
How do you know you’re a big deal? When other people start to make fun of you. Parodying superheroes is nothing new, with Saturday Night Live doing parodies all the way back in the late seventies, but the past year has shown a huge upswing in the popularity of superhero parodies. Websites like Funny or Die, How It Should Have Ended and College Humor have skewered most pop-culture targets with their parodies, but the superhero ones have been some of their strongest. I still get an immense chuckle out of College Humor‘s Batman Interrogation every time I watch it. In fact, let’s do so now.
And again I wonder – why would you choose to be a clown and work in Gotham City? Go someplace safer. Like Bosnia.
Aside from the straightforward parodies, one cannot fail to mention the superhero porn parodies. This genre began last year with Axel Braun’s Batman XXX: A Porn Parody, but the success of that title led to a whole subdivision of Vivid Entertainment, with Superman, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk all joining Batman. Other porn studios have followed suit with their own porn parodies, and it is now frighteningly easy to find your favorite superheroine being portrayed by a porn star now. The quality of those parodies is somewhat scary, and Braun’s videos even come with a mode where you can edit the porn out and just watch the fan-films. What’s really scary is that they’re pretty good on that level.
5) Day and Date Digital Comics Become a Reality
Digital Comics have been around since the first scanners were hooked up to Mac Pluses. The idea of reading comics on your screen instead of in print is nothing new, and services like comiXology, graphic.ly and Longbox all existed before this year. Collections of digital comics were available on CD-ROMS as far back as the late nineties, and each of the major publishers had their own online stores and apps for smartphones and tablets all before this year.
What changed in the past twelve months has been the growing revelation that digital comics are here to stay, and that while everyone wants to keep the brick-and-mortar comic shops alive and healthy, digital readers were going to continue to demand day-and-date digital releases.
As of this summer, they got ‘em. DC moved first, announcing that every single one of their New 52 comics (don’t worry, we’re getting to that) would be available digitally the same day that the print comics hit the stores. The digital books would be priced equally to the print books, and then drop in price after two months. Marvel quickly followed suit, putting all Spider-Man and X-Men titles on a day-and-date digital release schedule (with similar pricing), and the rest of their line-up followed. Each publisher also created incentives to get both the print and digital versions of the comics, with DC including a download code for Justice League in specially marked, $1.00 more versions of the comic, and then Marvel upped the ante with Avenging Spider-Man, including the download code with the comic and keeping the price steady at $3.99. Marvel has expanded this effort, with all of the Ultimate books following the same model beginning with February’s books. As someone who looks forward to buying the comic at my local store, downloading the comic for archiving and the ability to re-read, and then getting rid of the physical books, I am fully behind this effort. Expect to see this model expand to more comics in 2012.
4) Notable Creators Joe Simon, Jerry Robinson, Mick Anglo and Dwayne McDuffie Pass
Every year we lose some creators of comics. This is unavoidable, especially as the lions who are behind the Gold and Silver Age advance in age. But this year we had several notable losses. From the height of the Golden and Silver Ages, we lost Jerry Robinson (co-creator of The Joker and Robin), Joe Simon (co-creator of Captain America), and Mick Anglo (creator of Miracleman). These three losses would be enough to call it a rough year, but the big hit to fans came much earlier this year when Dwayne McDuffie unexpectedly passed.
McDuffie was a relatively young man, and in relatively good health. He was also prolific, and was the brain behind several a good chunk of the Milestone Comics universe, which gave us Static Shock. In addition to his work in comics, McDuffie was very active in DC Animation, writing screenplay after screenplay, and his final effort Justice League: Doom is scheduled for February of next year. When McDuffie died, it sent shockwaves through the industry and fandom, and his passing will be felt for quite awhile.
These four are hardly the only losses we experienced, with other creators, editors, publishers also passing away, along with actors responsible for bringing some of our beloved characters to life. Also notably, Joanne Siegel, the widow of Jerry Siegel and the model for Lois Lane, died this year. We’re going to feel these losses for years to come.
3) Marvel Utterly Dominates the Superhero Film Landscape
By any standard, Marvel won the superhero box office contest this past year. With two strong films from their own internal studio, and a very well received revival of the X-Men franchise at Fox, this was Marvel’s summer. X-Men: First Class, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were among the biggest box office hits, and also managed to be critically well -received by fans and general audiences alike.
Next year, DC has a shot at regaining the gold as Christopher Nolan brings us the third part of his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. With Christian Bale back inside the cowl, Tom Hardy pulling off a scary-looking Bane, Anne Hathaway rounding out the cast as Catwoman, and all of the creative elements which gave us Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, we’re expecting big things out of that film. The teaser included before Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has already been eaten up by fans, with bootleg copy after bootleg copy appearing on the web as WB’s legal department tries to tear each one down.
But even with The Dark Knight Rises, success is not assured for DC. Because Marvel has The Amazing Spider-Man at Sony, and even more importantly, The Avengers. There are a million ways that The Avengers could fail to deliver, but right now, fans are awaiting it with an anticipation that even the Bat-fans can’t quite touch. DC’s other superheroic effort, Man of Steel, is also eagerly anticipated, but that one isn’t even coming out next year, being pushed off until 2013.
2)Ultimate Spider-Man Kills Peter Parker and Bring Us Miles Morales
Ok, so deaths in comics – especially from the Big Two – have kind of ceased to mean anything. This past year, Bucky, Johnny Storm and Thor have all “died” in the pages of Marvel Comics, and DC killed off plenty of folks right before they relaunched their universe. So, the death of a character rarely counts as “big news of the year.” But this one right here is different.
Why? Well, for several reasons.
First off, death is taken a good deal more seriously in the Ultimate Universe than in Marvel’s mainstream 616 universe. A few villains have managed to return from the dead, but for the most part, in the Ultimate Universe, dead means dead. If you die, that’s it. Good-bye. Sayonara.
Secondly, this is pretty much the first time that Spider-Man has died in the comics. There have been one or two issue long arcs where people thought Spider-Man was dead, and I think he may have been killed in one of the Universe-wide catastrophes that killed millions, only to have it cosmically undone, but they’ve never really tried to sell a moment in comics where Spidey dies. This time they did. And they did it over the course of several issues.
I will say that, while I never really wanted to read a “Death of Spider-Man” story, the way Brian Michael Bendis handled it in the pages of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man was perfect. Taking a bullet meant for Captain America, and then going on to fight the Sinister Six, while wounded, saving Aunt May and Gwen from Norman Osborn? If there is a way that Spider-Man is meant to die, that’s it. The funeral in the pages of Ultimate Fallout remains heartbreaking reading, and all told, it felt like it had the kind of weight that Spider-Man’s death should have.
And then there’s Miles. Not only did Peter Parker die, but they brought us a new Spider-Man in the form of Miles Morales. A half-black, half-Latino thirteen year old kid who has powers similar but not identical to Peter’s, and whose origin is tied intimately into the life and death of the 16-year old Peter Parker. A kid who is questioning his place in the world, who wonders what these new powers mean, and what sort of responsibility comes with them. A kid who worries that he may have been indirectly responsible for the death of his predecessor.
We’re only four issues in to Bendis’ run on Miles life, but there is an energy and a vibrancy to the writing that hasn’t been there since the earliest days of Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man. Conservative pundits have loudly decried the new Spider-Man, and Marvel for putting a black kid under the mask. Most comic fans are enjoying the book, and sales on it have been solid.
Myself? I commissioned Miles’ costume to be made for me to wear to cons.
The reasons for this are varied. Part of it was just that I love the look of the costume. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of the reason I wanted the costume is because I think it is vital that superheroes be made up of more than just WASPs. I want to see more Black, Asian, Latino and Indian superheroes. I want to see more gay, lesbian and bisexual superheroes. I want more female characters, and ones who are more than just sex objects. In a perfect world, I want there to be a new hero created for a major comic – a new member of the Avengers or the Justice League, for instance – and I want the fact that the character is gay, or Asian, or black, or whatever to not even register as news. That there is a new Spider-Man is news. That the character is Black is news now, but I hope to live long enough for there to be enough superheroes of varying races, genders, religions and sexualities that we no longer take notice of that element of the character, and can just be interested in them as a character.
Miles is a first step down that road. And the stories Bendis is writing so far are ones that everyone can read and enjoy. I look forward to seeing more of it.
1) DC Creates The New 52
At this time last year, DC was wrapping up Brightest Day, and news was just beginning to come out about Flashpoint. No one, outside of the halls of DC Editorial, had the slightest idea that DC was preparing to change everything about their comics. Flashpoint was announced, and most fans shrugged it off. “Another crossover? Ok.” It seemed even less likely to have repercussions than most, since despite the many tie-in titles to Flashpoint, regular comics were going to continue on without being affected by the Flashpoint setting.
And then DC rocked the entire comics world with the news of The New 52. After Flashpoint every single DC Comics title (not counting Vertigo and some kids’ titles) was going to end, and this summer DC would release 52 new Number Ones. Such venerable titles as Detective Comics and Action Comics weren’t spared, and despite the fact that Action was closing in on its’ thousandth issue, it too would restart at #1.
The world was going to be completely fresh, with five years of undiscovered history before the books picked up. A few titles (Action Comics and Justice League) would be set in that pre-history, and a few others took place outside of that timeline entirely (All-Star Western and Demon Knights), but the other titles would all take place in a fresh DC Universe.
Costume designs were changed. Origins were altered. Relationships were undone and redefined. Teams that we thought we knew went away forever. It was a mostly fresh canvas, and DC put a massive amount of marketing power behind the relaunch.
Has it been a success? That’s harder to say. As I write this, DC is just beginning to launch issue four of the New 52 books, and while they topped the sales charts for the first three months of the relaunch, each month they did so by a smaller margin then the month before. Personally, I bought over half of the first issues of the New 52, only about two-thirds of those inspired me to grab a second issue, and by issue three, I was down to about a quarter of the books. I think I actually buy fewer DC Comics on a monthly basis now than I did before the relaunch, and for the most part, I have found nothing in the New 52 that feels like it was worth what we lost with the loss of history and continuity.
There have also been signs that the New 52 hasn’t been clean editorially or creatively. Gail Simone, one of the most vocal supporters of DC as a company on the Internet, and a favorite author of mine, had both of her titles from before the New 52 taken away. She came on to write two books within the New 52, one of which was godawful, and the other of which has struggled with the central conceit – which involves taking one of the few wheelchair bound heroes in comics and returning her to a costume and name which had been taken up by not one, but two well-loved characters. There have also been internal consistency issues, such as the non-existence of the Teen Titans, but one character’s past with that team being mentioned in the pages of Detective Comics. Creative teams are already announced to begin shifting as of Issue 7 of many of the books. And a lot of fans are still waiting for the cosmic reset button to be pressed.
The jury is out on the success of the New 52. But what cannot be denied was that it was big. In many ways, this was a bigger deal than the “relaunch” that DC used with Crisis on Infinite Earths. This was a universe-shaking move, and it brought a lot of new readers in to comic stores. Will they stick around and become ongoing readers? It’s still too soon to say. And it’s still too soon to say how many older readers are going to cash it in and say “I’m done with the DC Universe.” But it’s not too soon to say that it was a bold move on the part of DC Editorial, and its one that we will still be talking about this time next year.
So, that’s my thoughts on the Ten Biggest events in comics for 2011. I realize that there’s still two weeks of 2011 left, but the odds of anything displacing any of these ten from the list are small, so I’m comfortable with it. What moments from the past year struck you as big? Sound off in the comments, and I’ll see you in 2012!