This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Last year, James Tynion IV wrote about the “lost generation” of comic readers. A group of folks who love all things fandom, with one huge exception. It was a gut-punch to read, knowing that this was my own experience trying to get friends to read comics.
Tynion’s words stuck with me, I was obsessed with the “lost generation.” My generation. I felt a sense of duty to write about it, ask questions, learn how we could get my peers back. Was that even possible?
Would the introduction of new characters in the pages of Batman spark interest in non-readers? Or, are there more enticing alternatives in the form of video games and cinematic universes?
I reached out to friends and colleagues to help me decipher these feelings. To figure out what we can do as a community to bring people on board. Community being the key word. Whether it comes from the local comic shop or friends made over Discord, a good hearted community is essential to getting new people involved.
But there was still more to learn. I had to take my questions to the top, to the man himself, James Tynion IV.
Now, I’m sitting down with one of comics’ outspoken, forward-thinking writer to find out what he has to say about the “lost generation,” the future of the superhero genre and his own Generations Theory.
Tynion has applied the Generations Theory throughout his tenure on Batman, by adding many new characters to the Gotham mythos. By doing this, Tynion has changed and expanded Batman’s ideological scope. I discussed the introduction of Miracle Molly in an earlier essay, and since then, there’s been changes across both the pages of Batman and in Tynion’s greater oeuvre.
“He is willing to change because change is the only thing that is constant,” Tynion said during a Zoom call in November, near the end of his Batman run. “There is no perfect status quo that can be achieved and made to exist forever. Everything forms and degrades, and Batman recognizes that.”
Tynion added, “Scarecrow has this whole big theory about how to change Gotham using fear. And Batman throws back at him, ‘Scarecrow, you have never changed how you go about doing your crimes, you’re still just trying to make people afraid. And that’s why you’ll lose. You’re incapable of change.’”
What bigger comic is there to share this message than Batman? For a character that has been historically set in his ways, it’s a hopeful metaphor for changes in the comics industry and the world at-large. Batman’s evolving philosophy makes him more likely to trust his allies, and recognize his own faults along the way. If Batman of all people can learn and grow, so can we.
In spite of everything The Powers That Be throw at us on any given day, it is possible to make our own circles better places for ourselves and our loved ones. It’s a mindset that runs through Batman and Tynion’s more recent projects. When I asked about the optimism-despite-everything attitude of his current creator-owned works, Tynion had this to say.
“It is not going to be surprising to readers of Something is Killing the Children or Department of Truth, that I don’t trust organized systems. I don’t think the grownups are gonna come save us. But in the face of that, people persevere.”
His response could apply to any of the heroes he’s introduced in his books; Cole Turner, Rebecca Slaughter, Clownhunter, Miracle Molly. Tynion added, “The drive to want to help, even when it doesn’t feel like there are answers, is valuable to me especially when I’m trying to write a contemporary hero story.”
When the real world feels as though it’s constantly in flux and Tynion strives to reflect that in his writing.
“In this modern world, a world that has degraded to the point that it has, you still need to care about people and try to save other people,” Tynion said. “Even if it means letting go of some of the belief systems that you used to hold dear.”
The changes on the small scale in Batman and in the greater comics industry tie back to the Generations Theory proposed in Tynion’s post “Who is Miracle Molly?” When I asked how he came up with the Generations Theory, Tynion said it came out of his research for The Department of Truth. Tynion himself has talked extensively about the rabbit holes he’s found himself down while researching conspiracy theories for the Eisner-nominated series.
“There was the post-war system created around the time after World War II. And then the generation directly following that tried to correct some of the problems with it,” Tynion said of an oft-repeated process throughout history of refining and degradation. It’s an idea at such a massive scale that it could appear to be a natural occurrence to an untrained eye. He added, “It fascinates me immensely. And then I started thinking about it in terms of geek stuff, because that’s my bread and butter.”
When asked about the scalability of the Generations Theory, Tynion said, “I think there is a refining and degrading system in everything. Not just comics, but a lot of corporate media falls into the traps of the Generations Theory more so than things just happening naturally.”
In Tynion’s view, the natural degradation of some piece of media means that interest in it fades and becomes dormant before it gets revisited years down the line. In the Substack post, Tynion uses Star Wars as an example. For George Lucas, Star Wars was an homage to the Flash Gordon serials, among other inspirations (like, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, WWII-era war movies, and the ongoing Vietnam War, to name a few.)
That first generation raw material starts off innocently enough. Tynion calls it a “workman’s creation,” adding, “Alright the kids need some crap, let’s make a bunch of crap! And then the generation that grows up on the crap says, ‘No there was something really special in the crap.’”
Then a “crap refinery” is made. In today’s landscape, odds are that it’s one of a handful of media conglomerates/tech companies that act as intellectual property copyright holders.
“Once you get to generations four and five, that’s when the system starts to collapse,” Tynion said. “You start moving towards cacophony.”
That’s the Disney-era Star Wars works. Sure some of these pieces work, like The Mandolorian. Other times, like the sequel trilogy, success is mixed at best.
Tynion said that currently, the “superhero genre has been played out.” That’s not to say the genre is dead, especially with the continued box office and critical success of superhero movies.
“The person who is going to revitalize superhero comics has already been born,” Tynion said. “They are someone who, as a kid, read My Hero Academia and they watch the MCU movies.”
For this inevitable future creator, Tynion explains that their “culture and history and a couple decades of experience are going to come and mix that all together. Then you create a second generation work treating all of superheroes as pulp, as raw materials, and you get to restart the process.”
Tynion is passing the superhero torch to the next generation of writers, at least for the time being. Now, he is applying the Generations Theory to raw materials he’s coined as “True Weird.” It’s a blanket phrase that refers to the sensationalist science fiction magazines of the 1960s. In Blue Book, the Substack comic co-created by Tynion and Michael Avon Oeming, Tynion mines the stories of real life people who have (allegedly) encountered UFOs and extraterrestrials.
“Those were all the raw pieces that inspired Stan and Jack in the ‘60s for half of the Marvel Universe,” Tynion said. “I’ve been fascinated with revisiting the raw materials that inspired all of these things. How do you go back to the raw materials and create second generation works? And make use of them in the present day? And people pay me to do it, it’s great!”
Tynion’s a dynamo of creative energy, and he has an energy level of someone just getting started. (In a strange sort of kismet, Tynion’s final issue of The Joker is expected to come out a decade after his debut in the New 52-era Batman #8.)
“I don’t want to write meta comics, my Detective Comics run and my Justice League Dark run are about the DC comics I grew up reading and loving,” he said. “And I’m very proud of those books.”
Tynion himself admits that the comics that introduced him to the medium weren’t the most accessible.
“It was peak Geoff Johns at DC,” he said. “It was peak [Brian Michael] Bendis and [Mark] Millar and the Ultimate Universe [at Marvel].” At first enticed by the Michael Turner covers for DC’s Identity Crisis, Tynion’s pull list would eventually grow to include Geoff Johns’ recently-launched Teen Titans, Green Lantern, Infinite Crisis, and 52.
“The industry had basically collapsed. They were trying to shore up and bring back readers. But they all rely on you already having an opinion about these characters. At the same time, the X-Men and Spider-Man movies were coming out,” Tynion recalls, “People could just say, ‘You know what, I’ll wait until they make the movie.”
But it wasn’t just the movies that have overtaken the conversation around comics in the last 20-ish years. As Tynion pointed out in his original Substack post, the insular and more meta narratives in Big Two comics is what led them to “losing an entire generation of readers to manga and video games.”
He added that “manga was a better value. A $10 volume was thicker than anything you would get from a Western comic.” That value proposition has only gotten better for the consumer as the years have gone on. A volume of One Piece in 2003 is the same price as a volume of One Piece in 2022. All the while Western comics prices have increased incrementally.
There’s another writer and comics fan whose had similar conclusions. David Harper’s piece “The Illusion of Change”, for SKTCHD, explores this very moment in comics, from the Substack windfalls to Batman on Webtoon, and the ongoing changes in the distribution of comics.
“Part of the reason why I think the book market has done so much better is they’re really good at marketing.” Harper recalls DC’s New 52 initiative and how it was one of the only times ever in which there was “a massive multimedia campaign promoting comics.” It brought a lot of readers into the comics fold, even if the books couldn’t always retain readers’ interests.
“I always say the company that was most helped by The New 52 was not DC, it was Image,” Harper said, adding that if a reader bounced off one of the lesser New 52 titles, they had Saga or The Walking Dead on the shelves right next to it.
“A lot of publishers, especially the big ones, are not designing products for readers.” Harper said. “They’re designing products for collectors.” Harper cites evidence like constant reboots, new #1 issues, and an infinite amount of variant covers chief among them.
“People want the binge,” Harper said. “That’s why graphic novels and manga have exploded.”
Between the straightforward numbering and the consistent writers/artists from start to finish, there is a simplicity to manga that Western comics rarely benefit from.
While Western comics were losing readers, video games, still a fledgling industry, was about to experience a huge boom. The PlayStation 2/Xbox/GameCube era covered a ton of demographics. The former two consoles appealed to a type of player who was in or growing into adulthood, while the latter appealed to younger players and families. The aughts also brought video games to the “casual” audience with the introduction of the Nintendo DS, which leapfrogged the already-successful Game Boy line of handhelds.
“And once graphics had progressed to a certain point, it was wide open,” says Tynion, who referenced Final Fantasy X when coming up with the Designer for Batman.
Games became more social, too, thanks to the rise in the importance of online multiplayer with Xbox Live. In part two of this series, we explored how comics are a solitary hobby. Video games, both as a medium and games individually, benefit greatly from the communities that have sprung up around them. If the continued popularity of game guides is any indication, players helping one another is a core part of the wider ecosystem surrounding games. Comics, on the other hand, almost require the in-person curation of the LCS.
“A lot of shops these days are incredible resources,” Harper said. “Record stores are the perfect analogy.” Like comic shops, record stores, cater to their clientele with the staff’s unique tastes and expertise.
Harper tells me a story from when he was just dating his now wife. The two went into Bosco’s, a comic shop in Anchorage, Alaska, and she asked, “How do you know where to start?” To which Harper replied, “That’s a very legitimate question.”
Harper added, “One of the funny things about superhero comics is everyone’s always looking for a jumping on point. I would say the vast majority of people who are really into superhero comics jumped into it in the middle and we’re just like, ‘Let’s see what the hell happens.’”
Without the guiding hand of a friend or the expertise of a comic shop owner, it’s easy to see why a potential reader from the “Lost Generation” would be drawn away from comics. But there’s hope, and folks like Tynion are pushing for subtle but impactful changes.
“You’re supposed to pick them up and play with them,” Tynion said about the recently adopted writer’s room approach to making comics. “It’s more fun to play with your friends than it is to play alone.” Tynion said the anti-Oracle character was born out of this collaborative writing process.
Famously, the Krakoa era X-Men titles have been approached this way, but it was a surprise to me that more comics weren’t made this way before. And out of that process, the writers and artists on the X-Line were able to create comics that became essential reads for new and lapsed fans.
“People should really study the whole #XSpoilers thing,” Harper said. “Because it made comics a conversation point. To the point where people who hadn’t read comics in forever get that FOMO.”
Harper added, “That led to new people discovering it. People reading it in digital, people reading it in the Shonen Jump style. They made it easy for people to read it.”
From where we’re standing at the beginning of 2022, the next generation of comics creation comes from this more collaborative process and it takes many forms. It’s DC and Marvel writers hopping on to a Zoom call with one another to unify the shared worlds they’re working in. And it’s also Substack publishers engaging with their community of subscribers. It’s artists taking to Twitch and YouTube to show their creative process. Breaking down the barriers between fellow creators and between creators and readers is just the first step into the future of comics.
“We make cool, weird, niche stuff and there’s a huge audience for it,” Tynion said. “And if you lean into that, you can build these great communities.”
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