The comic book industry has seen better days. After years of plummeting sales and waning interest in the medium, the twin titans of Marvel and DC are on what appears to be their last legs. Traditional superhero comics are quickly losing their relevance in today’s world, where the target audience consists of more than just white male teenagers.
While Marvel seems to have recognized its own ineptitude, as evidenced by the introduction of a mixed-race protagonist in the Ultimate Spider-Man series, DC has only reinforced its antiquity with its recent “New 52” reboot. The usual cast of muscular white men and over-sexualized women is still intact, and issues like sexism are more pervasive than ever. While efforts like these might have led to slight sales boosts, they fails to address the problems that have been driving consumers away in droves.
The decline of Marvel and DC doesn’t herald the end of the comic book industry. It does, however, mark the end of an era filled with uninspired stagnation. The stage has been set for a new wave of publishers to come forward and bring comics back.
The most exciting potential lies in the many independent publishers that are swiftly gaining popularity in this changing market. With the comic-buying public gravitating away from larger companies, independent creators finally have their chance to truly flourish.
Enter writer Dan Lenfest-Jameson and artist Calan Lovstrom. These high school friends are the founding members of Maad Sheep, a Calgary-based comics production group. Their objective is simple: “To write, produce and promote independent comic books and culture throughout Calgary and Canada.”
Maad Sheep is a truly independent operation. Both Dan and Calan work full-time jobs outside the comic industry, but this in no way means they lack dedication. They treat Maad Sheep as their “second full-time job,” spending their time not making comics working conventions across the country.
The pair channels a fierce love of comics into their work. “When it comes to it, we’re fans first,” Dan discloses. “We started working together because we both passionately love comics.” Their passion is matched by their ambition, as they are currently putting out two series, with a third on the way.
Quiver Street, Maad Sheep’s first series, is what Calan calls “a friendship comic.” The characters are based off Calan’s personal experiences and focuses on a band of teenagers trying to survive without their parents. Their second series, Willie Lightning, stands in stark contrast to the “light-hearted” Quiver Street. Telling the story of an elderly black man gifted with supernatural abilities, Willie Lightning touches on heavier issues such as racism and gang violence. The duo aims to challenge their readers to take a closer look at the human condition.
“That’s what comics, I think, in their best form do. They challenge the reader not only to look at the world around them but to also look inside,” says Dan.
The comics themselves, however, have the unfortunate marks of a creative team new to the medium. While the ideas present in these series show a massive amount of potential, the writing can often be a bit heavy-handed and almost devoid of nuance. The plots of both series are unfocused — Quiver Street is almost incomprehensible despite its strong characterization.
Visually, both series are quite appealing. Panels often lack a certain sense of flow, however, and Willie Lightning’s Kevin O’Neill-esque art style could benefit from an occasional splash of colour. Some questionable font and shading choices also serve to detract from the striking aesthetic quality of the books.
Despite these flaws, both series exhibit an enormous amount of potential for interesting and thought-provoking storytelling. As Dan and Calan continue to grow and mature as artists the quality of their work will undoubtedly skyrocket — noticeable improvement is seen from one issue to the next.
Free from the constraints of a publisher’s demands, Maad Sheep will only continue to develop and flourish in coming years. Additionally, with the comic book industry rapidly changing, it will soon be up to independent groups like Maad Sheep to take the reins and steer the medium onto a new path.
As a consumer, you can do your part to change the industry — the best way to support independent creators is by buying their books. With their comics being sold at retailers across the city, hopefully Dan and Calan’s success will encourage more local creators to step up and start bringing this fading medium back into relevance.