What's going to "save" comics this time?

201104130315 What's going to "save" comics this time? The other day I posted a piece called Diamond: Comics and GNs soar in March and immediately got flack from readers for using the word “soar” — weren’t sales down overall from last year by a significant margin?

Yes, but they were also up from February by a significant margin — comics sales were up 17.13% and graphic novel sales were up 13.86%. Now, Diamond obviously used the word “soar” in an ocean of bad news all around — the reason the rise was so big is that February, with its annual snows and delays, was total suck — but it was equally obvious that they were trying to increase morale.

I definitely decided to use the glass-half-full term for a reason. Now that show season is upon us and I’m hitting the road, several people have been complaining about a perceived “negative” tone here, especially on the business side. It’s a charge I’m very sensitive to — times ARE tough and making things look bleaker are not going to improve anything. I’ll stand by the headline I used even if things have gotten more pear-shaped as more statistics have come out.

With yesterday’s layoffs at Dark Horse — following belt tightening at Top Cow — we’re seeing the effects of the general crap economy at last. Borders going into bankruptcy has left a lot of collateral damage, and as this month’s sales charts (even Diamond’s “soaring” one) show, comics sales are soft.

Now, it’s true that the fantasy economy has been a lot stronger than other business segments during The Great Recession, but it’s also gone on and on for two years. Everyone has been scrimping and scraping by, but eventually you have to look at the bottom line.

But I don’t think this is a harbinger of total gloom and doom for the comics industry either. Companies are also hiring people. A lot of retailers I’ve spoken to say their sales are level or even up so far this year — it’s possible they are all lying to me, but knowing the way retailers like to complain, I choose to believe they are telling me the truth.

The retail segment of the comics business has been the butt of many jokes for a long time, but it’s just possible that they aren’t the whole problem any more — most of the really really bad shops have gone away, and based on what I’ve seen on my travels, it’s just possible that most comics shops still standing actually know how to run their businesses. It ain’t perfect, but they’re here and most Borders stores are not.

Over the past few years I’ve become very skeptical of all the talk about “saving comics” — and I say that as someone who actually started a non-profit organization whose motto was “Here to save comics!” While this could be chalked up to my own ennui, I prefer to think of it as being practical. Or as I’ve been saying everywhere lately:

• They said if we could just get comics into Tower Records, it would save comics.
• Then they said if we could only get comics into Blockbuster, it would save comics.
• Then they said if we could only get comics into Borders, it would save comics.
201104130317 What's going to "save" comics this time?
Of course, Towers, Blockbuster, and Borders are all bankrupt, but comics are still here. Now I do think the comics INDUSTRY needs a lot of work — publishers are increasingly out of touch with their customer base, readers are aging out without new readers to replace them, and the entire media business is in tatters around us. To the above wishful thinking mantras, one could add “If only we could get comics onto iPads, we could save comics” — and you know what? That is probably right.

“Comics” in some form will be here when the iPad joins the Newton, the Classic and the original iPod in the Mac museum. Comics — meaning imaginative, touching stories told with words and pictures — have transcended every business and platform and distribution collapse.

Yes, there have been some rocky patches along the way (Wertham and the distributor wars of the ’90s) but I’ve come to realize that the need to “save comics” is based on two things. One is the ongoing insecurity and self-loathing that has afflicted the industry for a long long time — the strong belief that you are somehow involved in the worst business in the world cries out for a deus ex machina rescue whether it’s Borders or an iPhone. The other reason is that what most people are trying to save is actually their own place in comics.

Things are evolving and moving very quickly in the media at large. We been undergoing a paradigm shift from a place where ownership is the ideal to where access is the goal, and where getting things for free isn’t considered piracy at all – it’s just how things work. As I talk to my colleagues, almost every one is wrestling with various aspects of this evolution — and yes, the current economic shift and the loss of the middle class is definitely part of it as well. It’s a huge, huge thing, and where we come out, those smarter than me will have to tell you.

201104130332 What's going to "save" comics this time?

But wherever that place is, someone will be doodling on a piece of paper or a tablet and making funny drawings and adding words and so on. There will be comics. Or graphic novels. Or pictos. Or rocket pirates. Or whatever.

Now, do I think there are things that desperately need some fixing in the comics industry? Yes, I do. But do these problems really have anything to do with the artform itself? Perhaps I’m arguing a semantic point here — “saving comics” is a shorthand for all the things we’re always trying to fix on the business end — but don’t blame the medium for our own shortcomings and bugaboos. Look around at the great comics from over a hundred years of genius that are available right here and right now — and all the creativity going into creating new things — is that what needs to be fixed? Comics will save comics, with us or without us.

In the meantime, let’s get those sleeves rolled up and figure out what really needs to be fixed.

Comments

  1. John G says:

    Didn’t Mars have 5 comics shipping weeks as opposed to February’s 4?

    Can possibly explain the big increase in sales.

  2. Gary Spencer Millidge says:

    Nice post Heidi. I will heretofore be more positive when being interviewed about the state of the industry.

  3. Gary Spencer Millidge says:

    Of course when I say ‘heretofore’ I mean ‘henceforth’.

  4. >>>“If only we could get comics onto iPads, we could save comics” — and you know what? That is probably right.

    And webOS.

    But above all, make them cheap. I sit here with the prospect of having to pay $9.99 for an eBook version of a paperback I once paid $3.00 for. That shouldn’t happen with me buying digital versions of comics I bought in print back in the 1970s! No, I don’t expect them to be twenty-five cents again (one could dream! bundles?), but over 99-cents for “e-prints” and it’s No Sale for me. “e-prints” are found money for them. Most all completely company-owned with no royalty payouts or other emcumbrances. Cash in!!

  5. Comics don’t need saving, because usually that’s saving the Direct Market, more specifically saving Diamond Distributor, who eats a lot of the cover price an it’s no longer a “necessary evil”.

    Comics need to be good, to be available at the more venues as possible – comic shops, bookstores, market chains, online stores [in paper and digital form] – to have something that at least resembles a Marketing plan.

    and, obviously, more Comics need their rights licenced to other media – as usual. other than that, we’re living in times of a lot variety and creativity in Comics.

  6. Bravo!

    I was going to write a real comment here but I just want to emphasize one sentence from Heidi’s post that is, really, the beginning and the end of what I was going to say:

    …what most people are trying to save is actually their own place in comics.

  7. Torsten Adair says:

    Art and Commerce. Art will survive, just like the planet. Commerce? Models die, and get replaced with something else, like mammals or cockroaches.

    Myself, I subscribe to the “Pony Model” of optimism. With all this manure, there’s got to be pony in here somewhere…

    There is a publisher selling sequential volumes of genre fiction to a specific audience in e-book bundles.

    http://search.barnesandnoble.com/books/product.aspx?box=9781426865299&pos=-1&ugrp=2&EAN=9781426865299

    Too bad it’s Harlequin.
    The single ebooks are the same price as the mass market paperbacks. But the bundle is heavily discounted online. The nice thing about e-readers? It’s a plain brown wrapper. Nobody knows you’re reading a bodice (or dress shirt) ripper. The reader doesn’t have to deal with piles of paperbacks which will never be reread.

  8. badpenny says:

    I whole heartedly agree. But as I read this, realizing who wrote it, I couldn’t help but break out into laughter. It’s kind of like Keith Olbermann saying he’s going to start acting more republican.

  9. Amazon.com will save comics (graphic novels) by solving the distribution problems. Direct Market shops will save comics (weekly comics) with customer service. Digital comics will save comics (e-comics) by bringing in new fans.

    It will be interesting watching the three fight clubs duke it out for market share.

  10. I totally agree with you about comics’ self-esteem problems. Most of the problems in comics come from the culture of defeatism, inferiority complexes and the orgy of self-flagelation that constitutes the comics media/scene.

    Whatever.

    Comics are awesome. Being a cartoonist is the best thing in the world. It’s better than being an astronaut. Better than being a rock star.

    The only thing that lowers MY morale is when people who claim to be into comics aren’t really into comics at all.

  11. “Comics don’t need saving.”

    http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=13173

    Warren Ellis said it over a decade ago. The truth of the statement hasn’t changed.

  12. Great essay. What BradyDale said. Was the MoCCA show behind some of this epiphany?

    I really want someone to make a “Newton Will Save Comics” t-shirt now.

    Newton.

  13. Ignoring problems is the best way to get bigger problems.

  14. Beautiful piece, Heidi. Very nicely said.

  15. hikaru go says:

    “The only thing that lowers MY morale is when people who claim to be into comics aren’t really into comics at all.”

    Oh man, when I tell most people I read comics they get all excited: “Wow, that’s cool” etc. “Do you read them?” I ask. “No”

    If everyone that loves the IDEA of comics actually read comics, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  16. Kudos. Good piece. We could use some more optimism about this thing we all love.

  17. It’s important to note that it’s not the comics themselves that needs saving — the form has really matured and we’re seeing the best work being produced at nearly all levels and for all kinds of audiences and interests. And that includes those who prefer the classic stuff with so much older material being reprinted and made available, often in packaging much nicer than when it was originally released.

    And while the direct market is essential, it’s healthy for comics to be available at so many different venues, such as bookstores, online, and in formats like the iPad.

    But the business model is definitely shifting and changing, and understandably causing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.

  18. Chris Hero says:

    Ehh…I’m not trying to rain on your parade, but I think you’re right about it being semantics. Comics, the medium, will never need saving any more than text or pictures will. But “comics” as in “the comics industry” is at the very least hurting and could really use some good things to happen to boost revenue.

    Comics the art form – things are booming! Lots of awesome stuff out there.

    Comics the business – not booming.

    The other thing is this myth of all the bad comic stores being flushed out of the system…maybe in the big cities on the two coasts, but that’s not really the case for the rest of the country. Most of the comic stores out there are still awful. Yeah, there are *great* ones, but the vast majority are Marvel/DC only and run by some surly fat, balding guy who’s not really trying to help anyone.

    A

  19. All I know is I’m making the best comics of my life, and losing less money doing it than ever before. w00t.

  20. monopole says:

    The problem isn’t “Saving Comics/Manga” it’s “How to Monetise Comics/Manga”.

    The 10″ tablet with 1024×600 or better is just short of perfect for viewing comics. A >$200 tablet (for example the badpad) is quite sufficient for viewing. Comixology, Perfect View, or Aldiko do a near perfect job of displaying digital comics.

    I’m reading a lot more comics now that I have comixology on android tablets.

    It’s the new golden age in that regard. Just gotta get the money to the artists.

    I’d argue that there is even a legitimate market, if comics are portable across devices and timely. I’d pay a very good annual subscription to get the latest Bleach and Negima episodes automatically loaded to my tablet in a timely fashion.

    The challenge is maintaining timely distribution and extracting sufficient cashflow. An OAV type model using webcomics like Girl Genius is one way. Reasonably priced release of the backlist is another.

  21. Steve W says:

    My sense is that the market hasn’t changed that much. In the early 2000s there was a whole lot of buzz about these new fangled graphic novels & so everybody, including my grandmother, tried them. They read Persepolis & Watchmen & said, “these things are better than I thought.” But, because they weren’t all that interested, didn’t know what to read next, and went back to reading novels. So the readership went back to more traditional comic book readership, with an occasional blip if a big book, say Stitches, comes along. The mistake, in my opinion, was expecting the boom to last.

  22. Synsidar says:

    One of the problems that comics face, in reaching mass audiences, is that TV and movies are better at providing visual (and audio) entertainment that stimulates the senses than comics are. When writers and artists utilize the strengths of the medium (panel composition, artistic approach, etc.), they produce works that might have many virtues, and even be brilliant, but they don’t appeal to people looking for quick, cheap stimulation of the senses. Prose writers are facing the same problems. A writer can produce brilliant work, but as more people abandon reading books in favor of shorter pieces online or just do less reading altogether, the size of the market decreases.

    Assuming that the size of the total comics market increases, but sales of individual publications decline as the market becomes more fragmented, publishers might have to do more research and use demographics info better to reach specific audiences.

    SRS

  23. Comics needs more readers. Gaining new readers is the best, easiest, most effective thing that I (or any other comics-lover) can do for the medium.

  24. I really appreciate this piece. I have recently pretty much stopped buying comics altogether.

    The reason for this is simply the quality of comics coming out, they feel as though they are made to appeal to an audience that would buy them, say if they saw a movie that tied in to whatever character is featured on a dozen covers or whatever trend happens to be “hot” in the moment (Steampunk Palin anyone?). Many also feel like a script for a film or TV show. There are things comics can do that no other art form can do. Rather than become over-worked storyboards, I feel as though they need to rally the base.

    While I do know comics needs outside support, it has become the rule rather than the exception. Michael Zulli having to resort to kickstarter to fund his new book is so sad to me. We walk amongst giants and look only searching for the horizon.

    I remain optimistic. I think this is such a transitory period with the left-right punch of the recession and the scrambling print panic that has left our raft directionless and weathered, but I have faith that the risk takers will find their way home. And the rest can follow their beacons. And yes, it will probably signal from an ipad…

  25. How about instead of worrying about saving comics (as a business) we worry about making (and buying) the best comics we can? Artistically they’ve grown but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. I for one would like to see the continued expansion into other genres. In order for this to happen though I think that the comics world needs to stop being so insulated and self referential. Instead of worrying about getting “outsiders” to read comics, comic book readers should expand their circles of interest. There’s more out there than sci-fi/action movies and computer games, and those things are read/watched/followed by a potential new audience. We could open up the world of comics to new readers but more importantly we as comic nerds could expand culturally. Instead of a hundred comics featuring zombies there could be a comic for any subject under the sun. We’re smart people let’s try to approach the comics we make as smartly as we can. I don’t mean in a pretentious “fine art” way, but in a way that expresses real intelligence. Dammit we can do better!

  26. Will, for an artist to be successful they absolutely must draw from a wealth of the world’s knowledge and it is vital to look past the (very young) world of comics.

    The problem with doing this is not the artist’s burden but the publisher’s. They do not know how to market anything outside of the nerd multiverse. This is why, say, Sarah Glidden’s “How to Understand Israel…” is criminally unrecognized (not even nominated for an Eisner?!, even with the tons of press it has been getting. It should be getting press outside of the world of comics.

    My next big project is a comic done in charcoal and meant to be read as a play, inspired by the work of Jean Genet. I have no illusion that anyone will want to read it in the comics sphere. There is no publisher in comics that I can think of that would touch it (part of why I self-publish) but I can think of some literary publishers that I am going to pitch it to.

    We can do better, but are discouraged from doing so. No publishers are willing to risk promoting great books (which is why traditional literature publishers like Pantheon put out books like Persepolis. Would Oni Press? Or Dark Horse? D&Q? It became a deserved success because it was not marketed to the comics world and didn’t pander to the comics world. It is simply a great comic, doing something that no other artform can do. If it only sat in LCBS across the country it would be unknown and forgotten right now.

    Now that digital distribution is easy and inexpensive, publishers have the opportunity to reach audiences all over the world and actually take risks on books that aren’t about zombies or movie tie-ins or fill-in-the-blank trends.

    But I doubt there is anyone willing to risk it when there is a quick buck to be made off comics. Even Fantagraphics has taken to simply reprinting popular, lost greats (or translations) as their bread and butter. This probably allows them to do things like MOME without going broke.

  27. Chris Hero says:

    @Sabin

    “Even Fantagraphics has taken to simply reprinting popular, lost greats (or translations) as their bread and butter. This probably allows them to do things like MOME without going broke.”

    Fanta just cancelled MOME a couple of days ago.

  28. Wow! I had no idea…

  29. will barnes says:

    Great post Sabin. You’re right publishers are a cowardly and craven lot.

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