Marvel and DC Comics Control the Comic Book World, But Did You Know it Used to Be Belgium
Someone out there will be shocked to learn that globalization has caught up with comic books. Even comic books are vulnerable. For the rest of us, the news that Belgium, birthplace of the speech bubble and Tin-Tin, is fighting a tide of foreign-made comic book content for a place in its home market is almost a matter of common sense. The venerable creative home of comics isn’t taking it lying down though. Belgium is using public funds through the Ministry of Culture to support home grown comic book talent.
As usual, that rascal the internet, and giant corporations are to blame. Content created anywhere in the world can be moved easily to other markets, provided you could find enough translators. There’s an upside to this international market, though, since you can relatively easily access work produced anywhere in the world. Two titles that I’ve been really impressed by, Full Metal Alchemist and Blacksad, were produced in Japan and France, respectively. But with a global marketplace there isn’t always room at the top, or on the shelves, for local content.
There is a reason that we call Marvel and DC Comics "the Big Two." It’s because they’re huge. And being huge allows them to tap talent from global pools. Two of the most recognizable names in comics, Alan Moore, (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and Grant Morrison, (All-Star Superman, The Invisibles, New X-Men) are from the United Kingdom. Moore is English, and Morrison is Scottish. Frank Quitely, who illustrated All Star Superman and New X-Men, is also Scottish. Jamie Grant, their colourist, is Scottish too.
Not only are the stories penned from people around the world, but they take place all over the world. It almost seems like a cheap shot, but if you wanted to read a comic about British superheroes in Britain, Marvel publishes Captain Britain monthly, and he gets to interact with the rest of the wildly popular cast of Marvel characters. Batman Incorporated includes Batman style vigilantes on a global scale (Nightrunner for Paris, Knight and Squire for England). Try breaking into that field with a DIY operation, or even a modest publisher.
Guys from the UK writing for American publishers are not the end of this story, though, and the next thing to captivate the imagination, global or local, could come from anywhere.
Arguably one of the biggest rising influences on the comic industry in North America, and worldwide, is Japanese manga. Manga has been a blessing and a curse. Its content and style has brought girls to the table as a market and as creators. It has a lovely open black and white style, and often a goofy sense of humor that has connected with audiences the world over.
It also brings pointless pantyflashing, story arcs that are seven hundred issues long even though the plot petered out at issue 30, and wardrobes that would make Marvel superheroines blush. Perhaps the most important thing about manga is that it brought something new, something audiences in North America and Europe weren’t used to, and it developed the style and the content in its own time for its own market.
So, good on Belgium! Nurturing local talent is what keeps the industry fresh, and it’s what gives the hunt for the next exciting story or art style its thrill.
As for the future of the global comics industry, I suspect that the Big Two (as well as some other companies with deep pockets like Dark Horse) will continue to sample from the global talent pool. Meanwhile, particular countries will to nurture their own indie and national industries on a smaller scale, with the occasional breakout star. See Jeff Lemire, whose big name works for DC help keep him solvent for more Canadian works, like Essex County. There is also Spanish author, Juan Diaz Canales, and illustrator Juanjo Guanido’s title Blacksad, who both found international success. While I’m plugging Canada, let’s not forget Bryan Lee O’Malley, whose Scott Pilgrim, published by Oni Press, was a huge success.
We’ve had the invasion of British writers, and of Japanese style, who’s to say that the next big thing isn’t hiding out there in Johannesburg, or Ulan Batar?