And in the Future, We’ll All Ride Hoverbikes to the Comic Shop

9 Bold Predictions Made by Wizard Magazine’s Writers in 1996 That Didn’t Entirely Come to Pass

1. Todd McFarlane will do Spider-Man again.
We come here not to mock Wizard (R.I.P.) for daring to predict the future of the comics biz, merely to marvel at the sheer ballsiness of anyone trying to do so, especially in 1996. Some background: while cleaning the basement not too long ago, I came across a battered and forgotten issue of Wizard that hadn’t seen the light of day for 15 years. Among the many articles promising scintillating character revelations and news about what that month’s “hot” artists were up to, Wizard’s staff writers came up with a list of what they predicted would be the nine major trends and events to shake up the comics industry between 1996 and 2001. Number One on the list? That Todd McFarlane would return to the character that made him a superstar. “I really only scratched the surface of Spider-Man,” McFarlane is quoted as saying in the article. “If they ever said, ‘Todd, you can do Spider-Man and run wild with them,’ I’d still make changes.” While their relationship proved extremely profitable for both Marvel and McFarlane (his Spider-Man #1 still remains one of the top-selling comics of all time), he clashed repeatedly with Marvel’s editors over creative and compensation issues, and his decision to jump ship with several other Marvel artists to form Image Comics in 1992 seemed as good a sign as any that working for Marvel wasn’t one of his future goals (that, and the fact he loudly and publicly stated he would never work for them again). Still, with Marvel outsourcing several of its top titles to other Image artists in a 1996 marketing stunt, it wasn’t wholly inconceivable that McFarlane would relent and come back into the fold… but as of this date, it hasn’t happened yet.

2. Image Comics as we know it will be no more.
As noted above, McFarlane joined other key Marvel artists — specifically, Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio and Jim Valentino — to form Image Comics, a new venture that would publish and promote creator-owned comics that allowed artists to retain control of their work. It was a revolutionary idea, and like most revolutions there were some concerns at the start about how long it would last. These concerns came about mainly because the initial wave of fan interest in the company’s hot new titles (Spawn! Youngblood! Savage Dragon!) gave way to the grim realities of production schedules and other management-related drudgework; with little executive experience to draw from, the artists’ studios started to miss deadlines and fans grew impatient waiting for new issues. The Wizard article, written four years after Image’s high-profile debut, argued the artists’ studios had worked through their initial business challenges and no longer needed the Image umbrella to handle their distribution and publicity: “A restructured Image may survive, but the company is sure to undergo sweeping changes.” They weren’t too far off the mark on this one; Lee’s WildStorm Productions was sold off to DC in 1998 and Liefeld’s Extreme (later Awesome) Entertainment broke with Image in 1996 before folding in 2000, so the company has indeed seen some changes over the years. However, the other founding studios still retain ties to Image, and as of 2011 the company, the third-largest comic publisher in the U.S., continues to offer a home for creator-owned comics of all shapes.

3. 57 channels and nothing on? Try the Comics Network.
In the mid-’90s, cable subscribers could choose from any one of a number of channels devoted to news, sports, music, science fiction, comedy… heck, even golfers had their own channel. So why not a whole network catering to the comic fans among us? It sure seemed a slam dunk to the article’s writers: “It’s just a matter of a company organizing the whole thing.” They imagined daytime programming for this hypothetical network consisting of classic and first-run superhero cartoons, followed in the evening by reruns of classic live-action shows (think Wonder Woman and Greatest American Hero) and comic-based movies, with a generous helping of home shopping programs devoted to comic-book bric-a-brac and talk shows featuring comic professionals. This idea probably had more legs at a time when the Internet was still a curiosity, and no one can blame the writers for not foreseeing the impact that eBay, YouTube, torrenting, webcomics, and thousands of fan-driven comic blogs would have on the industry. Today, the idea of having just one cable network devoted to satisfying the tastes and interests of comic fans seems almost quaint, if not redundant, given the fact a lot of the comic-geek terrain has already been claimed by SyFy, the science-fiction channel in the U.S. Then there’s Canada’s SPACE Network (founded 1997), which intercuts its own sci-fi programming with shows like Shelf Space, offering interviews with sci-fi/fantasy and comic book authors, and It Came from the Basement!, a series showcasing eclectic sci-fi collections.

4. American artists will be studying the work of Masamune Shirow.
“If I have my way, slowly but surely we’ll transform X-Men into a cool manga book,” said Uncanny X-Men artist Joe Madureira. And indeed, there was a period of time when it seemed like every superhero published by either of the Big Two resembled figures chiseled out of angst-ridden granite — that is, when they weren’t sporting giant pontoon feet and shellacked hairdos, or practising their sucked-a-lemon-through-a-straw expressions whilst quipping mid-karate kick. It’s no surprise a generation of artists raised on manga-inspired artists like Frank Miller and actual manga imported to the U.S. in the 1980s drew inspiration from the giants of the Japanese art form, and Shirow (real name Masanori Ota) can certainly claim to be one of the more prominent manga artists — his Ghost in the Shell series (first released 1989) has received several printings and film adaptations over the years. But while several online sources feature “best artists” lists that include him among the likes of Kirby or Frazetta, it’s safe to say Shirow has not had the wide-ranging impact on the North American scene that the article’s writers predicted he would. This is based solely on the observation that mainstream comics (for the most part) have re-embraced a more realistic art style since the mid-’90s, all the better to complement post-9/11 scripts that tend to highlight the real-world implications of superpowered beings in our midst (see also: Civil War, Identity Crisis, pretty much all of Marvel’s Ultimate line). As far as I can tell, artists have not turned away en masse “from traditional sources of inspiration like Joe Kubert or Neal Adams and embrace[d] Shirow,” as the article predicted… but then, I’m not a graphic arts teacher or an expert on the manga scene. So go ahead, gang: prove me wrong!

5. You will see chains of Marvel Entertainment stores.
Walk past the Disney Store at your local mall, the article predicts, and you’ll find a Marvel Entertainment store bursting at the seams with comics, posters, clothing, toys, and anything else that can carry a Marvel logo or character design: “Unlikely, you say? Not at all. Considering the comics juggernaut that Marvel’s become over the years, the fact that the company owns its own distributor and that it recently made a deal with Planet Hollywood to open a Marvel Comics-themed restaurant in New York City, opening Marvel Stores is just plain profitable.” And indeed, in those heady days of the Warner Bros. Studio stores bringing all manners of Warner Bros. properties (including DC’s characters) to the credit-card-clutching masses, predicting a retail presence for Marvel probably didn’t seem too far out there. Alas, it was never meant to be: Marvel’s bankruptcy in late 1996 would have put any such project on hold, and even the Marvel Mania restaurant mentioned in the article (which opened in Hollywood, not New York) lasted little more than a year before financial troubles shut it down. Just as well, as all U.S. Warner Bros. stores went out of business in 2001 (with British stores following suit in 2004), and those in search of Spider-Man underwear or X-Men backpacks today are not exactly lacking in retail options.

6. Move over, X-Men and Spawn — Superman will flex his muscles as the next media juggernaut.
“Warner Bros., which recently bought back the Superman movie rights, will undoubtedly exploit the character’s box office power and plan several Super-movies, using the company’s extremely lucrative Batman formula: top-notch directors, big-name actors and a huge budget.” Eh, not quite. Like the Marvel stores prediction above, this must have seemed a no-brainer in 1996; after all, Superman had only recently come off his high-profile “Death of Superman” storyline, the Lois & Clark television show was still going strong, a new Superman animated series was set to debut that September, and his wedding to Lois Lane (both on TV and in a special-edition comic) was cranking up the publicity machine once again. Amid all this media exposure, rumors about a new Superman movie in production ran rampant, with actors and directors attached and unattached to the project with breakneck speed. But Superman Reborn (or Superman Lives, or Superman: FlyBy, or Batman vs. Superman — take your pick) never saw the light of day, and it wasn’t until 2006 that Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns hit the big screen, with decidedly non-big-name actors Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in the lead roles. While the world waited for a movie that turned out to more reverent than revelational, other comic-book heroes — notably Spider-Man, Batman and the X-Men — beat Superman to the punch, turning in solid performances that left Superman’s (so far) lone entry looking more like an attempt to recapture past glories. Sure, the Smallville TV series is working through its 10th(!) and final season as these words are written, but… well, “media juggernaut” doesn’t seem quite right here.

7. When you bring Preacher to the cash register, prepare to be carded.
Quoth the article: “As comic retailers are increasingly charged with selling ‘obscene’ materials to minors, pro-censorship organizations — or the government itself — will set their eyes on the comic book industry and force publishers to follow the video game and TV industries in policing themselves.” For those of you not up on your ancient history, the mid-1990s was a time when much of the public conversation was focused on the media’s influence on impressionable minds: the V-chip, the Communications Decency Act, a growing awareness that this new Internet thingie was bringing dirty pictures right into American homes — it all happened pretty much at the same time. So given that context, it’s entirely reasonable for the authors to believe comics would get caught up in the censorship debate. Funny thing is it never really happened that way. Yes, the occasional obscenity charge against a comic artist or retailer would come up, but comics were (and still are) way off the radar of our self-appointed moral guardians — far more so than in the early 1950s, when they were seen as the primary source of kiddie entertainment and therefore more likely to warp fragile little minds. Any ratings system adopted by the comic publishers in the past 15 years has been purely self-imposed (Marvel dropped the Comics Code Authority in 2001 in favor of its own ratings system; DC and Archie, the last CCA holdouts, followed suit in 2011), but so far Wizard’s prediction that Preacher and Sin City would someday be “sold on the same rack as adult magazines like Penthouse and Playboy” has not come to pass.

8. Tomorrow’s writers will not come from comics.
“Most of the poor writing over the past few years has resulted from rehashed comic book stories from writers whose only influences have been drawn from comics,” the article went on to say. “History tells us that the best comic book writers are pure writers who draw upon other forms of media; they just happen to use comics as their medium of expression.” The article then went on to say outfits like Tekno*Comix were already attracting the likes of Tom Clancy and Micky Spillane (who actually started out in comic books back in the 1940s) to focus their concepts on comic books, and it was only a matter of time before bestselling writers like Stephen King or John Grisham tried their hand at creating stories specifically designed for the medium. True enough, King has since lent his talents to such titles as American Vampire and adaptations of The Dark Tower and The Stand; other writers bringing their ideas to comics in recent years include Kevin Smith, Max Alan Collins,  Brad Meltzer, Jodi Picoult, Richard Donner, Jeph Loeb, Michael Chabon, J. Michael Straczynski, Joss Whedon, and a good chunk of the cast from the original Star Trek series, just to name a few. Grisham, as far as I can tell, has yet to write a comic about a plucky lawyer defying a corrupt system, but anything’s possible.

9. The traditional artist will become obsolete.
“The widespread use and integration of computers into the comic book medium has drastically affected, some may say made obsolete, the use of living, breathing inkers,” the article states, adding that traditional colorists and letterers have also seen much of their workload taken over by computers. “While they still need a human hand to guide them, computers are getting more advanced every day,” the article says during one of its more stating-the-blindly-obvious moments, and the production process will be forever changed because of that. True enough, the majority of today’s comics are no longer lettered by hand, and colorists have access to a wide array of tools that can achieve detailed shading and other special effects that weren’t possible before the rise of digital media. (And even inkers and pencillers have been affected by the digital revolution, though definitely not to the same extent.) So while we can quibble about what Wizard meant by “traditional artist” and “obsolete” (someone still has to tell the computers what to do, after all), the prediction that computers would change the production process certainly has come to pass. But it’s interesting that the writers chose to focus on technology’s impact on the physical production of comics rather than on technology’s impact on delivering actual comic book to readers. Then again, was it possible for the even widest-eyed futurist in 1996 to imagine a not-so-distant time when many comic fans would view the weekly trek down to the comic store as something the old-timers used to do, back in the sepia-toned day? All I can say is there’s no way I’m going to try to predict what the next five years will bring in this crazy business.

 

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