Comicon’s People Of The Year: 2018

by Hannah Means Shannon

Welcome to Comicon.com’s Best of the Year Awards, gathering the best comics and comics talent of 2018. This year we will be awarding in the following categories: Best Original Graphic Novels, Best Comic Series, Best Single Comic Issues, Best Writers, Best Artists, Best Cover Artists, Best Colorists, Best Letterers, Best Webcomics, Most Progressive Comics, and lastly, Comicon’s People of The Year: 2018.

The following are Comicon’s People of the Year: 2018.

People of the Year are chosen for their impact on comics over the course of the previous year through various avenues affecting community and publishing. The designation is not necessarily purely positive, but highlights people who have been the focus of important conversations, set significant examples, and are likely to continue to be part of the discussion surrounding comics in the coming year.

5. Chris Ryall

When Chris Ryall left IDW in March 2018, stepping down from the post of CCO and EIC, it was a fairly surprising announcement, especially after his intensely creative impact on the company for nearly 15 years. Due to his willingness to take on a public role, often appearing at conventions and on panels, meant that for many fans Ryall was synonymous with the company’s brand, and certainly with the creative direction of their books and expanding properties. When he landed at Skybound in their editorial department, this seemed like an appropriate development for an industry veteran and an interesting development for the Entertainment company since Ryall was as equally familiar guiding original properties as licensed work.

Ryall’s position in comics as an established veteran with paramount leadership experience places him in any “power list”, but the very recent announcement that he has returned to IDW in an even larger role than he previously held has been met, frankly, with great relief and approval from, fans and professionals. Ryall has taken up position as President, Publisher, and CCO. IDW has become a tremendous company for playing an ambassadorial role in comics, reaching readers who might not have otherwise picked up a comic, hopefully making lifelong comics fans out of them, and with developments in recent years such as the addition of the Black Crown imprint specializing in creator-owned properties under the editorial leadership of Shelly Bond, and also the expansion into Marvel-licensed middle-grade reader lines, IDW has a lot of forward momentum right now. A momentum that felt a little threatened by an ambiguity in leadership with the departure of a number of their staff members in recent years, such as Chris Ryall and group editor Sarah Gaydos.

With the return of Ryall to take up a renewed and expanded role in the company, the possibly missing component has been set in place, and the company seems poised to exploit their own potential more fully. It’s yet to be seen, of course, how this will play out and whether all will go smoothly, but for plenty of fans and professionals, the news of Ryall’s return has prompted a great deal of optimism for the future of IDW.

4. Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston

It’s not surprising to put comic writer and artist Jeff Lemire on any “notable” list for 2018, but it’s a very specific development in his career that shows a greater impact on comics than his many works have, singly, achieved. While the influence of his work so far has shifted the landscape of comics considerably in ways we’ll still be piecing together years from now, his creation of the Black Hammer Universe with artist Dean Ormston and colorist Dave Stewart is something with both immediate and continued impact.

Introducing a creator-owned property featuring superheroes isn’t unheard of, and any list would be considerable, but the Holy Grail of any original comic property is to successfully expand the universe of the story to allow for multiple lines of books whose inter-dependency satisfies existing fans and also manages to attract new readers. Essentially, this is even a stepping stone in the development of many publishers. It’s part of the history and development of both DC and Marvel; it’s also responsible for the rise and return of Valiant and something Lion Forge are continuing to develop. A shared universe is also the focus of H2, an upcoming line of comics from Humanoids in 2019.

Lemire and Ormston set up the launch of Black Hammer with Dark Horse in 2016, with Ormston overcoming health problems to continue working on the comic, and in many ways the duo concluded that original story in 2018 with the “Age of Doom” storyline. However, a controlled expansion of the Black Hammer Universe into miniseries and one-shots in 2017 and 2018 showed the immense potential of the world that Lemire and Ormston had created with The Quantum Age,  Cthu-Louise, Doctor Star & The Kingdom of Lost Tomorrows, Sherlock Frankenstein & the Legion of Evil, and the announcement of the upcoming Black Hammer ’45. Bringing in artists with disparate and alluring styles to play in the Black Hammer sandbox, including mainstream and indie talents like Max Fiumara as well as notable indies like David Rubin and Rich Tommaso, visually demonstrated that Lemire and Ormston have created a creator-owned expanded universe that can draw in other genre elements like science-fiction and detective fiction, too. Not since the expansion of the Hellboy Universe have readers really seen a creator-owned property begin to demonstrate the potential of creator-owned comics in this way. That’s down to the unique creative vision and determination of Lemire and Ormston.

The final evidence that the comics universe is likely to continue expanding is the announcement that Black Hammer is in development for television via Legendary, with the involvement of its creators. With potential revenue and interest prompted by going cross-media, the world of Black Hammer is only likely to become more established and expand yet further.

3. Chip Mosher

We could delve back into Chip Mosher’s history in comics, which is long and storied, starting with Boom! Studios and culminating first in the purchase of comiXology by Amazon, and secondly in his current role as Head of Content at comiXology, but it’s his gradual expansion of  the role of creator-owned comics at comiXology that attracts our attention for its impact in 2018 and beyond.

ComiXology began publishing original digital content in comics through partnerships with publishers like Marvel and Valiant but late in 2017, they released the Eisner Award-winning graphic novella, Marley’s Ghost. A retelling of A Christmas Carol originally created and partly drawn by Harvey Kurtzman, but adapted further and completed by Shannon Wheeler, Josh O’Neill, and Gideon Kendall, the story captured the imagination of readers, but also demonstrated something important. Original digital content in comics could make a big splash, whether it was set to appear in print or not. ComiXology Originals expanded in a new way with out preset assumptions for their future role in publishing. The focus seemed to be on story, quality, and the digital delivery system. While those had been the terms of publishing creator-owned properties through the “Submit” platform for many years (itself an innovation in creator-owned comics), this focused presentation of new material set the stage for an additional phase of development for comiXology.

What followed were indeed fairly expansive slates of creator-owned digital-first series and original graphic novels that were purpose-created for comiXology Originals. The new books featured the work of known and fan-supported creators from both indie and mainstream comics such as Elsa Charretier & Pierrick Colinet, Richard Starkings, Sam Humphries, Tim Seeley, Mike Norton, Hope Nicholson, C. Spike Trotman, Mags Visaggio, Jen Vaughn, and many more.

The two different launch slates released so far also contained embedded features that add to their usefulness and potential longevity: they could become print-on-demand volumes delivered by Amazon for readers who wanted a print version of these works. They could also be published internationally same-day or close in time in their digital formats, thus bringing the international comics market more firmly into sync than ever before. While it’s true that large book publishers can create cooperative relationships that enable them to release print volumes with same in-store dates across international borders, the amount of coordination necessary to do so is formidable. While behind-the-scenes coordination at comiXology may be difficult for other reasons, the actual release of works same-date on an international scale is, in many ways, quite simple.

There’s little doubt that Chip Mosher is the person responsible for spearheading these developments. He’s made no bones about his commitment to creator-owned comics since the beginning of his career in comics, and the expansion of comiXology Originals represents a long labor of bringing digital potential to original creative visions. For comiXology to establish a program that specifically generates and supports the creation of creator-owned comics and provides a mode of distribution on several fronts is a massive development in comics, one whose potential will continue to play out in the coming months, and hopefully, years.

2. Rebecca Sugar

An indie comic creator and animator, Rebecca Sugar is best known for their creation of the series Steven Universe, which in itself has impacted representations of gender and sexuality in animation, on TV, and in film. Due to the wide overlap in fandom between animation and comics, that alone might qualify Sugar for continuing to be a major impact on comics in a conceptual sense. For instance, a comics publisher looking at a pitch containing an asexual character, deciding whether the series might have sales potential, might conclude, “Well, they did this on Steven Universe and it was wildly popular”, leading to a decision in favor of the pitch. The show was also the first “kids” program to feature a lesbian proposal and wedding, which undoubtedly paves the way for greater inclusivity in representing relationships in popular culture.

However, in 2018, Sugar made personal decisions that even more widely impacted fandom and made waves that can be felt even in the comics industry. Sugar first confirmed that she was bisexual during an interview at SDCC, and then came out as a non-binary woman in an NPR interview. They later gave many reasons for their previous silence on the subject of sexuality, and the reasons were sobering. Sugar said that working in animation still carries a great deal of pressure to represent as gender-normative, essentially, and this is because it is a field with brand-recognition built on children’s programming. For Sugar, being open about their gender status and orientation meant a risk of losing work, even in the face of their well-known track record as a successful creator and animator. The fact that Rebecca Sugar felt fenced by their industry was a little shocking to hear, and gave fans pause, but was immediately followed by a tidal wave of approbation for their public statement and support for their new public persona.

Anyone who witnessed the reaction to Sugar’s presence and heartening speech at Small Press Expo 2018 would have been immediately reminded of the unique impact that Sugar has on comics, a field that professionally and creatively continues to overlap with animation. Wristbanding is a new practice at Small Press Expo, and though it was definitely necessary to marshal the crowds who turned up for Sugar’s talk, the ebullient atmosphere waiting to enter the lecture hall and throughout the talk felt as much like a religious or music festival as it did an informative Q&A with a professional creator.

1.Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

As someone who has shepherded both the creative direction of Archie Comics and the remarkable rebirth of their characters in TV format, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa stands in a unique position in the comics industry. It’s a standpoint that is both difficult to create and no doubt immensely difficult to maintain, but the longer he manages to do so, the bigger the impact on the relationship between comics and other visual media. He acts as both CCO of the publisher and as series developer, showrunner, and executive producer on their shows Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

To start with Riverdale, the “test case” in many ways for what has become a streak of success, bringing an Archie Comics property to the CW network made a lot of sense on paper, but easily could have ended in disaster, to be overly blunt about it. Shows on the CW have an established viewership, but not every show gathers a wide audience, and DC properties have been the most successful, building off of their own potential for crossovers. Even a well-made show may never find an audience if the subject matter seems to niche or isn’t marketed well. A stand-alone show like Riverdale had to strike out on its own and set a very different tone than a super show. The art direction and tone established by the show in early trailers and promo seemed both intriguing and a little loopy. Were they trying to be Twin Peaks? What was with the high-contrast neon lighting and the saturated color palette? How could that tie in to the traditionally squeaky-clean history of classic Archie Comics that rarely went beyond a limited color scheme?

The result, as any fan of the show will attest, has been so consistently daring and experimental that looking back to early reactions to Riverdale can only prompt amusement. In retrospect, the main way in which Riverdale created its own success was by being wildly odd in its creative direction, willfully combining disparate elements episode by episode. And it continues to do so. Comics tie-ins came quickly from Archie Comics, set in the world of Riverdale but also mixing in more traditional Archie Comics tone and concerns. The comics continue to “fill in” gaps of time and gaps in the personal lives of the characters in a satisfying way. While it remains to be seen just how commercially successful the comics have been for Archie Comics, they continue to develop and publish them in a marketing campaign that can only increase awareness of their TV universe in a helpful way.

Rather than appearing on the CW network, the Archie property Chilling Adventures of Sabrina took to Netflix. It’s hard to say whether Sabrina would have created the same fan reaction on the CW as it has on Netflix, but the delivery format of Netflix, enabling fans to binge the full season of the show during the Halloween season, definitely played a favorable role in generating buzz. With the runaway success of the show, keeping back a “Solstice Special” to air around Christmas time was another genius move that suggests the ability to exploit seasonal timing was always in the cards, pun intended. But what we see with Sabrina is actually a very different approach to presenting Archie characters than Riverdale.

Whereas Riverdale aims at the older teen (and well beyond) demographic, while making sure not to exclude mid-teen age ranges, Sabrina is set firmly in mid-teen range, seeming to punch up and punch down, casting a net wider for viewership. And while the horror in Sabrina is truly horrifying, expressing a kind of willingness to go to extremes that we see in Riverdale, at the same time its presentation of sexuality and violence is a little more stylized and less direct. Heavy emphasis on art direction is one of the biggest selling points of the show. For those interested in comics, the aesthetics partly drawn from the history of Sabrina comics, including the thrilling and chilling opening sequence, are a big win. Settings are lavish, costume design is exacting, and special effects are imaginative, too. The same kind of impetuousness that made Riverdale popular is at work in Sabrina, and fans are ravening for a new season of the show. We can also look forward to a new Sabrina comic coming up from the publisher that won’t exactly tie in to the show, but will present a very much teen-focused and seemingly light-hearted look at Sabrina.

It seems like a kind of magic formula is at work within these two shows, but realistically, it’s actually the achievement of a very fine balance that easily could have eluded both Archie Comics and the production companies at work. To try would have been inspiring, since there is a clear demand to bring comics properties to the small and large screen, but to impress comic readers and expand fandom in the ways that Riverdale and Sabrina have done should at least be partly attributed to the guidance of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Somehow, he’s negotiated very difficult territory in unique and surprising ways, and the phenomenon of Riverdale’s success, now joined by Sabrina’s, is making a mark on cross-media properties for comics.

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