iFanboy Video Podcast

iFanboy #239 – Comic Book Tone: Dark vs. Light

Show Notes

Comic books… they aren’t for kids anymore!

They sure aren’t, and they haven’t been for years. But is that a good thing?

Comic books started as a medium for children and is now almost solely the province of adults. But now, with an audience of adults who demand gritty realism in their superhero comic books, is there any room left for comics that appeal to all ages or to–gasp–kids? How did it get this way and is it healthy for an industry to focus solely on dark and gritty superheroes?

This week, the iFanboys discuss the state of the tone of current superhero comic books.


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  1. Great episode you guys! That’s the topic that been bothering me too! Personally I love the light hearted comic books and prefer them, but unfortunately that aren’t that many of them on the shelves. My favorite book from last year was Thor the Mighty Avenger and it got cancelled, which I completely heart broken about. The book that is redeeming my hope, is Wolverine and the X-Men, as you guys said it was just pure fun. I wish there more light-hearted books like that, fun teen team or just a solo ongoing would be my perfect book. This is not to say that I don’t think there shouldn’t be a place for darker comic books, there is an audience for that and loads of people love it. It’s a shame that there aren’t that many light hearted book at the moment 🙁

  2. what a classic old school type of show. 20mis of ranting and straight up good discussion. No commercials. I love the gritty comics but I can’t forget the colorful goofy comics that made me fall in love w/ comics in the first place. Great show guys. Thanks

  3. Great discussion, and I love the angle of the discussion, but think that the topic is being greatly oversimplified by saying that things haven’t changed since ’86. That’s just not true!

    The music analogy is actually a really good one. Just like you can pick up new music by bands that sound a lot like the Beatles, you can also listen to an album by a completely digital artist that focuses of different rhythms and chord structures. There’s more variety than ever now, and there’s a lot of “dark” stuff that sells but there’s also a ton of “light” stuff that sells.

    And, also, you gotta stop calling superhero stuff a medium! Medium is a format — genre is a stylized approach to a medium. Comics = medium. Superhero = genre. You guys toss out the word medium here when referring to superhero comics.

    Marvel Adventures was selling decent for a bit, but it was selling at tens-of-thousands less than the top books. I don’t think the series ever went above 20,000. Also, the Marvel Adventures books are (and have always been) available in the newsstand market in a magazine format. They’re less common and harder to find than US Weekly, for example. But still there. Book stores, Targets, etc.

    • We were calling comics the medium, and superheroes the dominant portion of that medium.

      We know about the Marvel Adventures sales outside of the direct market, which is why we brought it up as it used too be, from what we were told from people at Marvel, one of its top selling books because of those non-comic book store outlets.

    • It’s funny that you bring this up since iFanboy was the first place that I recall (in my not so many years) that emphasised the difference between medium and genre when talking about comics.

    • I work in a grocery store. We get about six comics at any given time. Three or so Archie books, Sonic, a random Star Wars book, and a random Marvel book (anything ranging from Secret Avengers, to Amazing Spider-Man, to those Jenkins Cap one-shots a few years ago). Which one do I sell often enough to say it’s the only one that sells? Sonic. Toss that around your head for a while.

  4. Damn, I really love it when the guys discuss some deeper issues in comics. My favorite kind of episodes.

    As for the dark vs light – I would love it if there were more fun, light-hearted books. Some of my favorite titles from recent years have been Thor the Mighty Avenger and Powergirl (Palmiotti, Gray). Ultimately, a good story is a good story, but if I have to read title after title of grim and gritty, I’m just gonna get tired of it… and possibly depressed. Variety is our friend.

  5. Wow. Great show guys.

    What a tricky topic.

    I think there’s a fundamental question that causes a lot of the trouble: Who should the publishers be considering as the ideal audience for super-hero comic books?

    And the corollary to that: Can they reach that audience (whatever it may be) without alienating others?

    For my money, Jason Aaron is showing us the way forward. Scalped is mature, sophisticated comic book storytelling at it’s best. That kind of thing is valuable and should exist. Wolverine and The X-Men (admittedly after only one issue) is a fun, exciting, all ages book that doesn’t pander to either kids or adults.

    Of course, as much as he’s an example of a solution, you can also argue that Aaron’s been part of the problem — the ending of that recent Wolverine arc is as clear a proof as any that you can’t give a kid most mainstream Marvel comics. But like Conor (kind of ) said, we’re all part of the problem right now.

    Books that are truly all-ages comics that work on multiple levels seem like the way to go. Like Pixar or Warner Brothers cartoons (old Looney Tunes, the original Batman animated series, Animaniacs, etc).

    Sure, you’ll end up holding back a little bit on what adults might want, but we’re *supposed* to be adults who can handle things like that, and there will always be mature readers books out there for us. But to make mainstream superhero comics truly accessible to kids again… would be huge.

  6. I think any medium is hampered when it is solely consumed by one tone or genre. I mean its an issue that most comics are superhero comics. The fact most superhero comics are dark and ‘grim n gritty’ cuts out even more possibilities. It is an issue that people scrabble to tell ‘edgy’ stories but its worse that (not just that they are done badly often) but more that its one style taking up a large portion. If they were all sunny or all comedy that would also be a problem. Which is why, as you said 86, was a breath of fresh air.

  7. It’s a simple answer to me. No medium can survive on one particular tone or direction for long. We’re in an age now where the writers are putting out probably the most excellent content we’ve seen ever in comics. Problem is the writers want to use the same tone to show off that content.

    And even as successful as the DC re-launch was, the best-selling DC books still were in the 100-300K range. Not trying to downplay that compared to how sales were before the re-launch, but it’s definitely still catering to that same audiences as I’m sure we’re well aware.

    I as well want that mix of the Dardevils and Wolverine and the X-Men in the world to go with my Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire books. And these darn publishers need to do their job and market it well enough across all spectrums to get those new audiences to come in. I’m sure I’m simplifying things, but you see where I’m going with this.

  8. I tried not to look in Alan Moore’s eyes, but I couldn’t help it. Now I’m cold.

  9. Terrific episode guys about a really interesting topic. My honest feeling is that when it comes to “dark” superheroes (as you mentioned, this is about superheroes – not comics), there are only a select few characters and titles that truly work with that aesthetic. Batman being the most obvious case in point, as seen particularly strongly with Scott Snyder’s stupendous work on the character. Though even then, there was a real lightness underlying the dark plots in that he understood that Dick Grayson is ultimately a hopeful character and that there is a slightly goofy tinge to the current Bruce Wayne adventures.

    With most superheroes, though, “light” is generally the way to go. It doesn’t always have to be strictly for kids but looking back at the best superhero comics I’ve read, well, pretty much ever, they do tend to be filled with optimism, joy and hope – even if there are darker elements to the villains, for example. “Light” doesn’t have to mean “kiddy” or “Silver Agey”, it just means that superheroes themselves work best with a certain tonality.

    Take, for example, The Flash since Barry Allen has returned. As far as I’m concerned Johns’ run fell flat on its face because that “lightness” was absolutely absent from the character of Barry Allen. On the other hand, the current Flash under Manapul and Buccellato has been wonderful because, even if it’s clear that the two don’t have the experience of a Geoff Johns when it comes to the craft of writing, they get the optimistic, hopeful feel of Barry Allen exactly right.

    And then there is someone like Grant Morrison whose superhero work has by and large fit the “lighter” side of superheroes to a tee. Morrison is the perfect example of a writer who understands how to balance the innately “bright” aspect of superheroes with more complex, darker stories that only shine a greater light on the fact that the superheroes themselves should represent best of humanity. Final Crisis was an immensely dark story about “the day evil won” but what all that darkness was all about was a way of shining a massive spotlight on the goodness of the superhero ideal – Superman, in particular, Similarly, All Star Superman may be a story about the “death” of Superman but it uses that as a vehicle to explore just what it is about Superman that does touch people on a deep and fundamentally good level. Contrast that to Alan Moore’s far nastier What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow to see a similar story being employed in such different ways. Or take a look at most of the recent work of Geoff Johns to see a writer who, for all of his professed love of superheroes, has lost sight of their heroic nature. And please oh please don’t get me started on the subject of Identity Crisis – an anti-superhero comic book if there ever was one.

    In short, what it comes down to this: superheroes don’t have to be for kids but they do have to be heroic.

  10. Now I’m even more confused about where you guys film

    • It’s the magic of television, man!

      They probably shoot more than one episode in a sitting. So they only have to get together once a month or so, crank out 4 or 5 episodes in a couple hours and call it good. Some of the shows are immediately topical, but others (like this) are on subjects that are bit more evergreen. Con shows are good for 3-4 weeks, and the occasional vault show doesn’t require them to be together.

      Nothing to get confused about!

      Or, I’m entirely wrong, and it’s all CG.

    • they meet in the negative zone. duh.

    • I’m 99% sure they film at Conor’s in LA. Earlier this year, instead of the brownish room with the art on the wall, Conor’s apartment in Brooklyn, it became the brownish room with the brick wall in the back. Other past video show sets were Josh’s house (that green room), Ron’s kitchen in CT (I think), and a couple episodes on the Techzilla set when Ron still worked at Revision3. There’s been a few others, but I’d have to look back at the archives.

    • You guys all have it wrong. You need to go deeper. Ron, Josh and Conor have never met. They hire three actors who look and sound exactly like them, and who all live together, to do the video shows. They’ve replaced the guy who plays Conor twice. If you play certain podcasts backwards, it all becomes clear.

    • I’m confused as well — this is still Park Slope, so I guess they have enough Brooklyn shows in the can to last this long. When do they shoot in Culver City, or worse — NEW HAMPSHIRE?!

  11. great show….i’m glad you approached this topic.

    I really am bored with dark and gritty comics. For one reason they are just everywhere, and have lost all impact on me. More of the same becomes boring. Also i see it more as a crutch more often than a great place to go story wise.
    Its easier to drop a crazy serial killer into a situation and have em do messed up things than it is to figure out a witty, smart and fun mystery. Writing comedy is tough.

    And yeah the fact that the all ages books are made for 1st graders and thats about it…yeah its sad. I wish they came back to the middle a bit.

  12. Darwyn Cooke’s DC: New Frontier is a another good example of Lighter toned all ages superhero story that was successful

  13. I think comics (DC and Marvel anyway) have a short person complex. Comics were made fun of for so long that many fans and creators have this understated need to prove that their hobby isn’t a childish one.

    • thats an interesting take and i kind of agree with you. As if every writer/artist has this “THIS IS SERIOUS LITERATURE!!!!” statement to make. Nothing wrong with writing big dumb fun pop culture.

    • So should the publishers tell the writers what kind of stories to write. Another way to phrase it, should they tell writers they can’t tell the stories they want to tell?

    • @newway12: Jimski wrote something lke that a while back and I agree completely.

      @ABirdseysView: That’s what DC and Marvel already do. The creators don’t own the characters, the publishers do. They tell creators they can’t do certain things all the time.

    • True, but when Kirkman suggested Marvel target superhero comics more towards kids, Bendis makes the comment that he doesn’t want to write Avengers that way. That was a few years ago, but I think the sentiment still exists. The creators may be told to rein in certain things, but there is a lot they get away with, because the comics are in fact darker.

    • @ABirdseysView: I’m not sure how that relates. Of course these creators want to continue to write adult superhero stories. Those are the books that Marvel and DC are primarily publishing. If, next week, Marvel and DC wanted to start targeting kids, their creators would have to start doing that or get other jobs. The publishers are in charge, not the creators.

    • reminds me of a fugazi paraphrase:
      “never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying”

      the publishers fault? Saving the industry. This conversation seems to creep up often here.

      also since we are voicing vaguely off topic opinions, I think Avengers should not be an ongoing book but rather turn into the summer “event” book…i mean how many earth shattering crises requiring nearly every hero can there be before humans just give up? Give the humans in the Marvel U a Daredevilian break.

  14. I see your point but I think Darker is better. Maybe it’s me but I got into comics because the dark tone seems more like what a real person would do with these powers.I think it’s a little fake to say that all people with powers are positive.That said there is such thing as overkill and everything doesn’t have to be hardcore.I think balance would be restored if they did it every now and then. It needs to be both dark and light.I think kids have more grown taste then we think. These kids listen to adult themed songs. so as long as they are able to buy it the dark tone won’t be a problem.The price is a bigger barrier.

  15. Why can’t “dark” be for kids? Really. I had a handful, but not a lot of comics as a kid, but I was exposed to plenty of similar dark entertainment. I saw that ’89 Batman movie when I was probably 5 or 6. I loved Return of the Jedi, and mainly the dark lightsaber battle at the end. My favorite Disney movie was always Fantasia, which has the DEVIL in the final sequence. One of my few and favorite comics was Rogue smashing an old building while lamenting her love life with Gambit while Mr. Sinister lurks in the shadows. That said, the first superheroes I really connected with was the Power Rangers, which had dark elements (main villain with no skin and a metal skeleton for instance) but was basically light fare. And here I am reading comics as an adult. There must be many other people like me who started reading in their late teens and reads now in their mid-20s.

    And let’s look at the potential audience. If the child in question has elements in their life that are actually darker, a rough home life, rough school life, etc. Now, this may only be darker because it’s real and fairly common. The comic portraying violence, occult elements, and other dark imagery on the surface is worse, but it still isn’t real (This is under the pretense that a parent is properly teaching the difference between real life and entertainment, but I digress). All this dark entertaiment, including comics, is still an escape from the child’s real life. And what if that child’s life isn’t very dark? Would they be drawn more to the lighter toned material? Maybe. In the end, there should probably be a fair amount of both out there.

    Also, what if the model is kids are introduced to superheroes through movies and TV (and most importantly merchandise). There are several superhero shows on right now of varying quality and popularity. And if Marvel’s TV plans are a true harbinger, the amount of shows will double at the least. These kids enjoy the superheroes on TV, but maybe lose interest in their teens, but then come around to comics, comics written more mature or “darker”, when they get older. That model would still serve to grow the industry, yes? It just isn’t immediately evident.

    The other point I will always argue is that at the end of the day, kids just want to emulate their parents or others who are older than them. Kids laugh at sitcoms not meant for them because their parents are laughing in the same room, not because they actually get the jokes. Pre-teen girls read Seventeen, while seventeen year-old girls read Cosmo, certainly not meant for them. Teen drinking only exists because adults drink. The smart entertainment companies get this. So Marvel and DC cater to adults who love their characters. That’s only going to leave the door wide open for junior to love their characters as well.

    • Except by your logic (kids want to emulate adults), we should have a large cohort of kids reading comics.

      And yet we don’t.

    • I would guess that adults reading comics are very likely to have kids who read comics, or are at least exposed to some.

    • Sure, but that doesn’t grow the readership in any meaningful way. If there are 200,000 adults reading comics, let’s be generous and say half of them have kids that are old enough to read (I suspect the number is far, far less). Even if half those kids get into comics, you’re still just adding readers and not sales (in the short term).

      Your initial post seems to be arguing for things to stay the way they are (maybe I’m misunderstanding), and I just don’t think that leads to much of a future for the comic book industry.

    • Parents who are readers introducing their kids to superhero comics can only help. But not necessarily just parents. Everything I’ve heard about the Golden Age says adults read comics too. If enough adults are reading Superman, kids are sure to hear about it and want to read it too.

      But the industry may just have to settle for pushing these characters on children primarily through TV and movies. It may not turn them into comic readers immediately, but in the long term, if kids are made to really love the characters like all of us do, it will grow the industry.

      Also, for both adults and kids, I don’t think blaming distribution and marketing is scapegoating, the show seemed to imply this. During Young Justice and Avengers, there is absolutely no reason to not advertise the comics. And there is absolutely no reason to not push them into other distribution channels. Basically I’m arguing that the problem is not tone, it’s marketing/distribution. If there’s anything else, it’s the negative stigma. That is what Marvel and DC need to correct.

    • Parents getting their kids to read comics IS great, but because not every fan will have kids and not every kid will get into comics, taken across generations, it doesn’t do enough to reverse the trend of dwindling readership.

      And yes, comics were read by adults in the Golden Age — which was over 50 years ago in a world that lacked video games, 24/7 television programming, Netflix and the Internet.

      You’re absolutely right that marketing/distribution is a problem. As much as I love my LCS, the direct market is a dinosaur up to it’s neck in a tar pit (I’m not a paleontologist, so forgive the probably inaccurate metaphor).

      However, I think tone *might be* a problem. It all depends on who the superhero publishers think their audience ought to be. If they want people aged 15 and up, the tone is probably fine as it is, but they have to get those people to believe that these comics are at least as entertaining as the movies, accessible, and a good value for their money. DC really pushed on these points this summer and — for now — it seems to have had some effect.

      I don’t know what the solution is, but things just can not stay the way they are.

  16. We have had the Golden Age of comics, Silver Age, Bronze Age and Modern. I truly believe we are now moving into the Diversity Age.

    If you want Dark, BAM… you got it. You want Light?…POW, here you go! You want Funny…ZING, have fun. You want Sexy?…Wom-chica-Wa Wa, enjoy! You want non-superhero stories?…Shick-KOW, eat up and bon-appetite!

    Because of back issues, the rise in digital access and forums such as this one, there’s nothing out of reach as far as your taste goes. In fact, the diversity (dark, light, funny, etc…) can also be applied to specific characters (Daredevil, Batman,etc…).

    Enjoyed the video podcast – good discussion!

  17. I remember hearing a story about a letter in a fan magazine that complained that the prices and storylines made it ipossible for kids to get into comics and without the kids, the medium would die.

    the magazine was from 1976. (good thing everyone here was already reading comics before then)

    also remember being in a comic store talking to a long time fan who had been reading comics for 20 years who said the proliferation of more mature comics in the past few years along with the longer storylines and the fact there were just too many comics made it impossible for kids to get into comics anymore and the medium was in trouble.

    that was in 1986.

    i have had the same conversation in 1996 and 2006 and will again in 2016. unless of course comics are dead by then because sooner or later someone will be right.

    • true the conversation has been going on for a while, also true that readership trends significantly downward every decade.
      DC freaked out that Justice League shipped 100k….back in the 80s that might have been a disappointment.

    • thats not entirely true, comics sales rose steadily from the late seventies until the early nineties, then spiked and rose very high, then bottomed out and dropped lower then before and stayed flat for a few years, then they had been on the rise from 2000 steadily until 2008. comics sales rose for 15 years, then spiked for about 3 or 4 years, then drastically dropped and stayed flat for a few years then steadily rose for 8 years then dropped for 3.

      the trend for over 30 years has been an upward one that was ruined by seriously bad business decisions on the part of a whole lot of people in the 90s and a recovery stopped by a global recession in the last few years. The downward ternds have only been from about 1995-2000 and 2008-2011. the problem is that the downward trend in the 90s wasnt a trend as much as a very quick collapse.

  18. I thought Batman the Brave and the Bold was a good reference to the silver age. P.S. How can you talk about dark and not mention Sin City.

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