Here are some general thoughts which have occured to me since I last blogged. They re-visit various subjects which I've already covered.
Licensed comics erode the function of the editor as the person with the final say on the material is someone who works in a licensing department. This person will more often than not have absolutely no experience in comics. It is no wonder that in many cases an editor on a licensed comic becomes little more than a traffic manager, whose main job is keeping the work flowing through the system, with no time to make changes which in turn have to be approved by the license holder.
When I was a lad I always thought that the job of an editor was to improve the work of writers and artists by offering them advice based on his or her experience. Under the strict time constraints placed on licensed comics there seems little opportunity for an editor to do this.
I also used to think that there was a fairly natural progression from freelance professional to editor in the US market. As the freelancer got older they became less inclined to chase assignments and would opt for the more secure position of editor. I thought this would lead to a gradual evolution of comics as writers and artists whose ideas were considered too avant garde would allow those ideas through when they became editors.
However the welcome introduction of royalties made the job of a freelancer far more lucrative in many cases, and this has stopped the flow of editors from freelance positions. The industries loss has been the individual's gain.
For many months I was stumped by two contradictory thoughts concerning the US market. On the one hand I believed that the large number of titles published in the 1940s lead to the discovery of new trends and a vibrant, growing market. On the other hand I believe that the large number of self published comics today, whilst being very laudible in their own right, have done little to create new trends and a vibrant, growing market. How to explain this contradiction?
I believe that the missing ingredient is editorial input. Even if in the 1940s comic publishers were hiring whoever they could get there were still editorial standards and creators were given a brief to follow. Today self-published creators produce whatever takes their fancy, often emulating other books which haven't succeeded. The publishers in the 1940s were operating in a hugely competative enviroment and constantly on the look out for something new which would capture an audience. The self publishers of today are not interested in entertaining readers and are often just self-indulgent.
Wednesday, 25 January 2012
Here are some examples of creators who have founded "schools"...
Herge didn't just create Tintin, he established a way of creating comics, consisting of complex plotting, well defined characters, international locales and meticulously researched clearline drawings.
Stan Lee created the soap opera superhero comic where characters evolved and storylines continued from one issue to another and characters occupied a shared universe. The fact that he wrote so many books led to a greater reliance on the storytelling skills of the artists. Stan Lee would recount a basic plot to his collaborators who would then draw the entire issue from his outline and Stan would return to add dialogue to match the pictures.
Jack Kirby personified power and movement in an art style perfectly suited to the superhero, his drawings seem simple yet they are dynamic and when he moved to DC comics in the 70s he developed his own storytelling style which perfectly suited his art. Vast inter-dimensional dramas played out by all too human protagonists.
Osamu Tezuka is the godfather of manga, having established the styles and working practices for two media – manga and anime. He synthesized the American approach and suited it to post war Japanese tastes giving fantastic cartoony characters and dynamic action scenes their own distinctive flavour. Tezuka laid the foundations for manga and anime which eclipsed their American inspirations (newspaper strips and Disney animation) in Japan.
Tune in for more Classic Creators in future blogs.
Tuesday, 15 November 2011
Friday, 5 August 2011
Why should we try to “fix” comics? Comic strips play a vital role in developing literacy, especially at a time when there are so many “distractions”. The comic strip offers an accessible, and let’s face it fun way to improve reading skills. Perhaps it is no coincidence that boys’ literacy levels have dropped as the publication of boys’ comics has dropped. The rewards for reading comic strips come quickly, and that is becoming more important in this age of instant gratification. There are a great many kids out there whose parents want them to learn English, not French, not German but English. This is an absolute advantage that the US and UK comic industries need to capitalize on.
When dealing with the question of fixing comics we need to start, as always, with the basics. What would, in my opinion, fix comics? I think a wide range of comic strip material readily available for all ages is a good place to start. A pyramid structure is the best way to describe it, with kids’ comics forming the base and a gradual loss of readers as they grow up and inevitably have other demands on a shrinking leisure time. This doesn’t mean that comics are kids’ stuff, just that kids won’t be reading novels or newspapers or magazines, kids won’t be driving themselves to school or fixing gutters or doing the laundry. Kids have a large amount of leisure time and it’s a good idea to fill it with something that helps them learn to read, rather than computer games which help them to…play computer games.
Many of the barriers to adults reading comic strips have now been broken down, thanks to Hollywood and the general “dumbing down” of society. As a medium and an industry we should take advantage of this unique confluence of social trends. We have more kids in the world who want to read English and more adults who are open to the possibility of reading comic strips than ever before. If we cannot grow our industry in the UK and US at this moment in time then we will never be able to. With print media in decline at the moment, books, magazines and newspapers can no longer ignore the popularity of our medium, and need to take advantage of anything that can slow their decreasing sales.
We should all remember that we now have the biggest global market ever, with literacy and numeracy as essential skills. Add a growing middle class in some of the most populated, and previously poorest, nations on earth and there is a huge market for any tool which can be shown to help in learning. We no longer need vast hordes of illiterate workers to engage in mindless, repetitive work now that we have so much mechanized labour. The move to knowledge based economies seems unstoppable. Comics as a medium and an industry, has to show that it can perform a useful role in the development of (primarily) young minds.
In the UK we already have ample shelf space for kids’ comics, one only has to go into a news agent or WH Smith to see it. Now imagine all of those licensed, polybagged, freebie stuffed magazines full of originated material by UK creators. Each of those comics would be an attempt to find a formula which worked in today’s market, and with that many experiments we would soon start coming up with correct answers. At the moment almost all of the magazines in the kids’ section represent one strategy: feed off the success of a tv cartoon. This strategy persists even though it is shown to often fail, or lead to a very short lived success (and that only when the bar has been lowered to a preposterously low level). If each publisher pursued their own individual strategy the market as a whole would have a far better chance of re-establishing contact with its audience and providing them with the type of comic strips they want. No doubt within that range of material licensed and foreign re-print material would find its place, but it would probably not dominate.
Comic production in the UK is too cheap, which accounts for the amount of licensed and re-print material. One only needs to look at the number of people who work on a magazine or newspaper and compare it to the number of people who work on a comic (which often has the same cover price) to see just how cheap comic production is. Rather than trying to achieve high sales figures UK comic publishers have simply reduced the money they spend on production to keep their publications just in profit. Comics compete for shelf space with magazines that have a large staff which pays attention to every detail of their publication, larger page counts but often the same cover price, better production values and are backed by national advertising campaigns.
Comic magazines often have minimal comic strip content, replacing it with activities and puzzles, they are difficult to display thanks to the plastic toys stuck on the covers, they are not backed up by any type of advertising campaign and are cancelled with alarming frequency. To add insult to injury they are not even cheap (except the Beano).
Bitter experience has shown that 99% of licensed properties cannot sustain a comic spin-off, which shows that not every tv cartoon deserves its own comic. There used to be UK comic magazines which featured a plethora of strips based on tv shows; TV21, TV Express, Look In, Disneyland and Countdown. The experience of the last twenty years has shown us that there are very, very few license properties which can sustain a comic book.
The UK comic industry needs to appeal directly to its readers, at the moment its main dialogue is with distributors. Publishers seem to spend too much time jumping through hoops held up by their distributors. If comic publishers produced comics that were aimed at various different age groups and advertised them to the best of their ability, as every other business does, they would control their own destinies to a far greater degree. Publishers seem to spend an awful lot of money courting distributors and getting them to “promote” their comics, with dubious results. Far better to spend that money where you can gauge its effect and let the distributor just distribute. Unfortunately this leads us back to the previous point of comics being under-funded, if publishers won’t spend the money on the product they are unlikely to spend it on promotion. This is not true of the movie industry which often spends more money on advertising than film production.
The comic industry needs to start at the very beginning, creating comic strips which appeal to kids, which will form the base of a pyramid. The more readers the industry has at this stage the more readers it will retain as they grow older. This is the problem the US industry faces as they are not producing comics for young readers they are stuck with an aging audience which is not being replenished. In the UK comic publishers have tended to produce comics which parents would approve of, but to combat the ubiquitous influence of computer games, the internet and tv parents should be only too pleased to have their children read anything. It has always seemed strange to me that parents seem unable to exert any control over the computer games their children play and the internet and tv they watch, but exert an iron grip on what they read. One comic which does find favour with parents and is also a licensed comic is the Disney comic and as I have already mentioned this is the bedrock upon which many European comic industries are based (if it works don’t knock it).
We must accept that children are young consumers with a certain amount of disposable cash. With that in mind we need to create content that they want to read. Unfortunately to find out what that is there is nothing else to do but experiment with new material. The comic industry in the UK has already tried the “sure thing” (ie basing comics on tv shows) and that has proved anything but a guarantee of success. By getting kids to read comics we are doing a good thing, we are giving them entry level reading material. A page of text can be daunting to a young reader but a page of comic strip which has some words on it is far more welcoming and rewarding (reading the words adds meaning to the pictures).
As with so many of the solutions which I will propose a new mind set will be needed in both the UK and US comic industries. If the old mind set was working and sales were constantly climbing and creators were rushed off their feet providing content then there would be no need for change. The consequences of continuing on their respective courses are dire, but the rewards for trying something new are great and we’re approaching a point at which something new has to be tried.
Hopefully anyone reading this will realize that my solutions will add to output. My proposals are designed to increase comic sales and that means all comic sales, existing and new. I’m suggesting trying other things in the UK as well as licensed comics. If licensed or re-print comics are successful then keep producing them, but in a buoyant expanding market the level at which a comic is considered a success may alter. In the US attracting younger readers to comics will lead more of them to direct sales comic shops and all the titles created for comic fans.
Everything that comic publishers produce grows from the readership it establishes at a very young age, which is why it is important to provide a wide variety of material for kids. The more kids you have reading comic strips, either in comic books, newspapers or on-line, the more you will retain as they grow older.
The comic industry has a huge talent pool to draw upon, with many new creators entering the field and many experienced creators standing idle. This gives comic publishers flexibility in page rates and deals in exchange for first print rights etc. A relatively small company with limited finances could pay far lower rates for which it would only receive first print rights. A company with greater finances could buy a percentage of syndication rights and first refusal on graphic novel rights etc. Currently the myriad of different options available are not being explored, often because creators are working on licensed material on which there is no room to maneuver.
I think small upfront payments with subsequent payments based on sales (so long as there is an independent method of verification) are a good idea as they allow publishers to experiment without incurring financial ruin but also reward creators for success. It is no accident that the quality of comic strips in Europe and Japan is better than in the US and UK. In the US the sales are dictated primarily by the publishing company and in the UK sales are dictated by the popularity of the licensed property. If creators retained rights they would be creating work that would generate an income for them throughout their lifetime, if it was any good.
If change in the publishing of comics is important then distribution and promotion is no less important. In the US comic distribution has migrated almost totally from news stands to direct sales with disastrous consequences for sales. While many say that this is the inevitable influence of computer games, the internet and tv other countries have not experienced a similar nose dive in sales (sales may have dropped but not to the same extent and computers and tvs are not unknown in Japan, France etc), and the same period has seen a growth in the children’s book market.
In the UK publishers have seen supermarkets as some type of saviour, but it has not led to huge sales, just an ever increasing percentage of the same sales going through supermarkets. This has the effect of driving newsagents out of business and leading to less potential outlets for product, as well as placing all the power in the hands of supermarkets.
Up until the late 1970s all major comics from Fleetway, DC Thomson (and possibly Odhams) were accompanied by a tv advertising campaign, and this was when there was only one tv channel to advertise on (meaning tv advertising was at its most expensive while today tv advertising is at its cheapest). Perhaps any large scale comic launch needs a significant advertising campaign to back it up, not necessarily a tv campaign but some form of advertising apart from spots in sister publications. At the moment we are in a situation where publishers feel the comics don’t sell enough so they don’t advertise so therefore the comics don’t sell very well.
It would make more sense for a UK comic company to advertise a comic featuring originated material as it would profit them more than a licensed comic. As well as letting potential readers know about their product an advertising campaign would show distributors and retailers that the publisher is backing their product rather than just throwing it out there and canceling it at the first drop in sales. No one is advocating that a comic publisher bankrupt themselves to pay for a tv ad campaign but by the same token they cannot rely on the distributor to do everything for them. Even advertising in bus shelters would be an improvement. Licensing has placed comic magazines on a par with a happy meal, an addendum rather than a prized possession in its own right.
Comic publishers in the US and UK both need to attract new readers. In the US this is stymied by most comics only being available in direct sales shops, while in the UK comics are far more readily available but mired in re-print/licensing/cover mount hell. Comic publishers on both sides of the Atlantic need to try new approaches in an attempt to attract new young readers, it is not an impossible task. Just a few years ago the kids’ book market was in the doldrums and perceived wisdom was that all books had to feature streetwise, skateboarding computer hackers. What eventually revolutionized the kids’ book market were the Harry Potter books which featured a young wizard at an old fashioned boarding school. This just goes to show that no one can absolutely predict what will work and the only way to find that next hit is to experiment. To a certain extent the comic publishers are still in the streetwise, skateboarding computer hacker phase except they’re aiming almost exclusively at teenagers and older! They act as though that is the only market ignoring all other demographics.
I think the length of comic books is of great importance as is the price. Most US comics are just 22 pages long and cost between $3 to $4, taking sometimes as little as 5 minutes to read and leaving a month between issues while telling a continued storyline. Basically they’re a mess. They’re expensive, they have no easy jumping on point, there are multiple versions of the same character, no consistent look to a character and they’re infrequent. If you’re aim was to build up an audience you would try to avoid any of these factors, to have all of them virtually guarantees failure.
A monthly comic aimed at a general audience would have to have at least 100 pages, either devoted to just one character or an anthology. If a single character is featured the look of the character should be standardized and storylines should have an element of resolution in each monthly issue. A bi-weekly publication would have to be around 40-50 pages, a weekly at least 24 and daily strips need to be more than just a single 3 panel strip. This is the age of text messaging, e-mail and mobile phones, while comics are stuck at a pace from a previous century.
Whether these publications contain just one strip or are anthologies they need to be of high quality, in the case of single strips this means an art team capable of producing at least 25 pages a week. Those contributing to anthologies would also need to maintain a high standard as their work would be collected into albums, which is where they would make the bulk of their money. In the UK and US artists are merely chasing this month’s pay check and have little stake in the long term profitability of their work as they have no stake in it (having worked for hire).
As I have said before few characters in the US or UK could sustain a 100 page monthly magazine on news stands. In the US there are Spider-Man, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Superman and Batman (I don’t know whether newspaper strip characters such as Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Hagar the Horrible etc have the same media profiles). In the UK the list consists of characters such as Dennis the Menace, Dan Dare, Judge Dredd, Rupert the Bear, although none have had the sustained media profile of their American counterparts.
It would seem a good idea to use recognizable characters if either the US or UK comic industries were trying to sell product to a much wider audience, but whatever the content and whether they are aimed at kids or adults they need to be in the right format, correctly priced, efficiently distributed and properly promoted (simple). Comic publishers should not believe that if they change one small element of how they operate everything will be fixed, their problems extend to almost every element of operations. Changes need to be root and branch not piecemeal.
So many factors seem to be falling into place for comic strips and yet the industry in the US and UK seems to be unable to capitalize on them. Newspaper circulation is dropping and they should be eager for anything which might boost their circulation and make them seem more family friendly. Decadent westerners too lazy to read books make ideal comic book readers, while a growing middle class in the far-east can use our comic strips to help their children read English and trade with the rich west. Film and tv companies looking for properties which can be trialed cheaply and adapted into movies and tv shows need look no further than comic strips. The computer games industry uses comic strip imagery and scenarios which make our medium more accessible to dudes who would never normally dream of reading comics (although the traffic the other way is already heavy). Falling book sales have made high priced graphic novels an attractive proposition. Why are we as an industry not able to take advantage of these factors which appear to be playing directly into our hands!?
As we move up the age range we should see comics for both girls and boys, with girls reading far more fiction than teenage boys the market should be skewed towards them. Comics in the UK and US are aimed almost exclusively at young men, a demographic that is notoriously reluctant to read fiction. The UK used to have a nice spread of comics for both girls and boys, with girls from five to fifteen able to choose between Twinkle, Judy, Bunty, Mandy, Misty and many more. As comic publishing moves up the age range there would need to be a far more diverse range of material available, as teens seek to express their individuality (we see this in teen fashion and music). Basically teenagers try to define themselves by what they consume, and the same would be true of their comic strip tastes. Publishers would need to offer a wide range of material for teenagers of both sexes to choose from, as opposed to the limited selection currently available. The introduction of manga to bookstores gave us a taste of the wider audience (including girls) out there.
The rewards for finding what teenagers like, in any medium, are huge which is why so many pursue this market. A fad in the teenage market will be picked up not just by teens but also by younger kids who wish to appear more grown up and older people who wish to appear young at heart (re skateboards). There are no quick solutions or guarantees, success can only be achieved by trial and error and a new, unique comic has more of a chance of becoming a hit than a licensed property in this market (teens are very aware of rip-offs and cash-ins).
US independent publishers have managed to get graphic novels into bookshops, but to get “real” penetration most creators have signed up with large book publishers. The initial surge in indie publishing occurred in the early days of the direct sales market when new customers were finding their way to comic shops via the news stands. If the US market could once more create that route then comic shop retailers and all comic publishers, big and small, would benefit.
Indie publishers need to be far smarter than they have been. To cater solely to a fan boy market cannot generate enough sales anymore, as fan boy numbers have dwindled. They now need to create properties that initially appeal to the direct sales market but are also suitable for a general market and adaptation into toys, video games, movies or tv.
Indie publishers, while able to minimize their outlay by printing to firm orders, are not seen as potential innovators and future market leaders by either distributors or retailers. Yet in the 1960s no one believed that Marvel would soon eclipse DC. Smaller publishers need to convince distributors and retailers that their product has the potential, and aspiration, to be the next Batman or Spider-Man. This has been missing in the market since the launch of Image which did try to establish new characters such as Spawn, Savage Dragon and Wildcats.
Image, like Dark Horse, has become one of the bigger players in the US direct sales market primarily because they were at the right place at the right time. Conditions in the direct sales market are far tougher today and indie publishers need to innovate. Unfortunately most of them are relying on licensed properties to stand out from the crowd and sell their publications. Basically there is the same number of publishers trying to divide an ever decreasing market. Some means need to be found to introduce new customers into direct sales comic shops.
Unfortunately the plethora of Hollywood comic adaptations has not directed new readers to comic shops. I believe that an aggressive publishing schedule of comic strips aimed at young readers available on news stands backed up by a select band of large page count monthly books featuring high profile characters would increase the flow of new readers into comic shops. This would lead to a thriving direct sales market instead of a shrinking market.
The small press has engaged in an arms race with photocopied comics becoming professionally printed comics, becoming full colour and now graphic novels with their own web site. This is partly due to the distributor increasing the break even on books and creators trying to stand out from the crowd. When dealing with new talent as a retailer and a reader you don’t want to be faced with an expensive graphic novel. There is a growing trend amongst small press creators to use newspaper printing, which can reduce the cover price and this is a move in the right direction. Now they just have to work on the content…
The direct sales comic industry has shrunk to such an alarming degree that comic conventions are now a place where publishers try to sell books direct to customers. They are also a place where creators try to pick up work from publishers and comic fans get to meet their favourite creators and publishers.
Comic publishers need events where they can promote their publications to the general public. These events would have to be free and publishers would concentrate on promoting their publications and attracting new readers with free giveaways. These events would not need to be elaborate weekend long affairs, they would be short appearances in malls where publishers can reach every sector of the market.
Comic professionals need some kind of event where they can show their work and talk to editors and publishers to find out what they’re looking for. This would not need to be anything more than a series of rooms in a hotel where editors and art directors can look at proposals and portfolios. There could also be a room where publishers could outline the direction they’re heading and what kind of creators they’re looking for. No need for big expensive booths, no need to transport vast amounts of stock, just a small team of senior staff who are willing to see what’s out there.
Past experience has shown that portfolio reviews are not high on the list of publisher’s priorities (they usually get cancelled). The prevailing attitude of the industry is that the status quo is…well static. No one believes they will find the next Spider-Man (not since Image anyway) and nobody’s trying to find the new Stan Lee or Jack Kirby.
If finding a new creator or character lead to incredible success and thereby incredible wealth then comic publishers might put more effort into it. A healthy level of competition might be good for the industry. Instead of keeping the same creators (especially writers) on books that don’t sell why not shake things up a bit and try someone new. We can all quote a list of writers who have never had a hit book (and probably never will) who keep getting assignments presumably because they are considered a safe bet.
Conventions should be fit for purpose, at one event publishers would try to attract new readers and boost sales, at another event publishers would search for new talent. Neither of these would impinge on the function of current comic conventions, where long time fans can meet their favourite creators and discuss their work. Media conventions would fall under the first type of event, acting as an opportunity to recruit new readers, but they need to find some way to include comics in the general mix of media, as opposed to an oddity on the fringes.
There are many small events springing up which hold workshops to show kids how to make comics, while on the whole this is no bad thing, it reminds me of when Manga first became popular in the west. The UK and US took a multi billion dollar Japanese industry and turned it into an art activity for kids!?
The most important convention the US and UK could ever hold would be a Comics Symposium, where publishers from all over the world would come and explain how they publish and distribute in their countries. Creators could also attend to learn about the revenues generated and the royalty deals offered to creators. In business this is called “best practice” where you study the methods of an organization that has better results and learn lessons from them.
Creators write and draw as they want to write and draw, and often in the only way they can write and draw. It is up to publishers to find a way to capitalize on the way that creators write and draw. At the moment the directions offered by publishers are not leading to outstanding sales figures, so they are left with little choice but to experiment or see sales figures remain low. In Europe and Japan creators follow sales figures, producing more of what sells because they profit from it. In the US especially there is little incentive as Marvel and DC get the majority of sales despite the relative quality of the books produced. This has lead to a great deal of self indulgence on the part of creators. If writers and artists were supplying the needs of a huge audience, and benefiting critically and financially, they would be far less likely to be self indulgent.
Comic publishers in the UK and US have to stop taking the easy route. They must accept that they are in a bad position and to get out of it is going to take hard work, risk and investment of time and money. All their received wisdom has lead to a dwindling market and an inability to capitalize on the greatest promotional opportunity (movies) to hit the medium in decades. Their strategy must be to introduce as many kids to the medium as it can and attempt to keep as many of them as possible as they grow up. By implication that means they have to publish a wide variety of material and make it generally available, the polar opposite of the US strategy for the past couple of decades.
DC Thomson have seen sales falling for the past twenty years and yet have waited until The Dandy totters on the brink of cancellation to do something. It is difficult for an organization which is not used to change to suddenly have to implement wholesale changes. If the company had been responding to readers’ demands for the past twenty years it might be better placed for change. One suspects that nothing will work in the UK news stand market other than a fairly constant stream of trial and error backed up by some affordable type of promotion to keep books extant for as long as possible. Licensed properties have not proven to be the answer as they come and go with alarming regularity.
Book publishers are releasing single graphic novels, in the hope of stumbling across a hit, should realize that’s not the way the comic strip works. The UK and US book trades are both attempting to jump to the pay-off without having done the preparatory work. They have seen that Europe and Japan have manga books and albums and started publishing manga type books and albums. They have ignored the fact that those manga and albums were serialized first in periodicals to build up a readership and gauge their popularity with the general public. UK and US book trades are trying to solve a math problem by shouting out random numbers in the hope they’ll stumble across the right answer. If they’re willing to do the hard work they’ll get the right answer. Graphic novel trade is not like the book trade, it’s a different medium.
Graphic novel publishing is a part of the daily, weekly or monthly comic book publishing process, they are inextricably linked (symbiotic). If graphic novels were like novels then Maus, Watchmen and Dark Knight would have established their creators in the book shops and they’d have been building on that initial success for the last thirty years. This just re-affirms my belief that comic strip success can only be established by the regular publication of a recognizable character!!
Both the UK and US markets seem to have a profile for readers very similar to that previously held by the children’s book market (sassy, cool, skateboarding computer hacker) and time and again aims product at this market (which by the way shows no interest in reading much of anything as it’s not cool). Publishers must realize that any teen that reads for pleasure is hardly likely to be a street smart dude and should adjust their output accordingly. Anthology periodicals would soon supply publishers with data indicating what their readers want more of and publishers should follow that lead.
The US market, although potentially much bigger than the UK, is bound to one single distributor, with the main publishers having signed an exclusive deal with Diamond. The Diamond Previews catalogue has slimmed down considerably recently and one can only hope that something will shake all relevant parties out of the course upon which they are set (and have been set for the past few decades).
Comic conventions don’t really increase the profile of comic strips, to do that they would have to be far more innovative than they are currently. As with the direct sales market they are merely another way to squeeze more money out of the same fans that haunt comic shops. Once again it is the comic market expending the least amount of thought and effort and therefore getting the minimal returns which that effort deserves.
For a while UK comic cons were very different to US comic cons, as comic professionals charged for sketches in the US and also brought along original pages for fans to buy. UK pros now bring along original art for sale but they haven’t started charging for sketches yet. Perhaps comic pros should charge for sketches, because at the moment they are undercutting charities that charge £1 per sketch while comic pros have long lines of fans in front of them waiting for freebies.
Comic cons are aimed at the same captive market which comic shops service, therefore (most) publishers view comic cons as an opportunity to sell product. If comic cons actually attracted new people it would be in the publishers’ interest to give away promotional items to try and attract those new people to their product. Movie studios and game companies that attend cons don’t try and sell product they promote product, they let shops sell their DVDs or games, that’s what shops are for.
Comic cons used to be places where creators gave advance information about upcoming projects ( I remember sitting in a packed hall at an early UKCAC listening to Moore & Gibbons telling us about a new project called Watchmen), but now fans know about projects via blogs and news web sites almost instantly. Comic cons were a rare event where the comic community could come together, now that community is constantly linked thanks to on-line forums etc.
When movie and media conventions started including comic books in their line up one might have expected comic strips to reach a new audience that had ignored comics before, but these conventions have not found a way to integrate comics (instead creating a village or alley which is bypassed by those who are far more interested in tv, anime, movies or games). This is a problem that comics will always face as the other media are far more flashy, I’ve wondered if comics have to remain apart just to hold the attention of those who come to cons.
The more established comic creators often shy away from media cons as they can often be unknown there, and it’s a bit of a culture shock to go from a comic con where you can be one of the “guests of honour” to a media con where people are more interested in a supporting actor from a crap sci-fi tv show.
San Diego Comic Con has become a media con now, and while there are thousands of attendees one can still walk up to almost any comic booth and talk to an editor or publisher without having to wait too long. Those additional thousands are there for game, tv and movie previews, and the San Diego Comic Con has also become a tourist attraction! This is great for San Diego and great for the Comic Con but the comic companies are still catering to their entrenched comic fans and seem unable to reach out to the thousands who meander past their stalls all weekend. San Diego is still only the 4th largest Con as Japan, France and Italy all stage bigger events.
There are lots of comic cons in the US and UK now, and with web sites, discussion groups and blogs it is easy for comic fans to become totally immersed in the world and believe it is bigger than it actually is. I used to attend the Toy Fair at Olympia and it was like a huge comic con every day for a week, filled with people in the trade not customers. That should give you an idea of the scale of comics and should point to just how much our industry could grow.
If comic cons attracted new readers to the medium they would be a place where publishers could test new ideas and gauge the mood of the market. At the moment the industry is trapped in an incestuous relationship with its readers, both knowing what to expect from each other. Many smaller publishers feel they must attend comic cons to maintain their profile but one can see little benefit in doing so apart from seeing a portfolio or meeting a creator looking for work, but most creators will have sent their samples out already.
With comic cons catering exclusively to comic fans because the comics they promote are produced exclusively for comic fans it should come as no surprise that comic cons do not attract new readers. Admission prices have begun to drop but even at £5 a family of four has spent £20 before they’ve pushed their way to the first table. Because comic cons cater to that captive fan boy market, they always seem to take place in a venue that’s just too small for the number of people attending (and let’s not forget the traditional lack of air conditioning). Most comic cons are too crowded, too hot and too smelly. This is not going to attract new readers it’s only the die hard fan boys who put up with this kind of treatment.
If our hypothetical family did get into a comic con they would be lucky to find any material suitable for kids, and if those kids were girls they’d be in real trouble (unless those girls were already dyed in the wool manga fans).
Like the comic publishers and the direct sales market comic cons have focused on comic fans and are unwilling (or unable) to reach a market beyond that which it already services.
When the direct sales market was set up there was soon a steady supply of independent and small press comics to feed into the system. Publishers such as First, Pacific, Eclipse, Fantagraphics and Harrier were formed and allowed creators to keep their rights. Different sized companies offered different deals but the choice was fairly clear: small amount of money up-front but keep your rights (indies), or more money up-front and lose your rights (Marvel & DC). There were also plenty of small press comics out there written, drawn and published by one person or a small group.
In the early days of the direct sales market this all seemed to work okay as plenty of new readers were coming into the market, because comics were still distributed on news stands as well as comic shops. The comic market was retaining more readers because they had more “sophisticated” comics to progress on to, some published by Marvel and DC as well as the new indies. Top name creators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Howard Chaykin, Steve Englehart and Mike Grell were all being published by indies.
Small press creators had extremely popular titles such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cerebus and Elfquest to try to emulate. Each sector of the market was profit-making to a greater or lesser extent. Over the years the indie and small press scene has gradually changed, and not for the better. The flow of established creators from Marvel and DC to the indies has lessened a great deal, with independent publishers such as Dark Horse, Boom, IDW and Dynamite Entertainment publishing a significant amount of licensed material. Image still overwhelmingly publishes creator owned material, most of which is by new talent as opposed to established creators.
The small press sector has to a large extent followed the lead of Fantagraphics, which has nurtured a self-expressive, semi-autobiographical style of comic strip. Creators often reveal their sexual preferences just to show how “searingly honest” they are ( Crumb was there decades before them and didn’t do it in a calculating way like today’s creators). Fantagraphics is a prime example of visibility over viability, its influence spreading throughout the self publishing field. If Fantagraphics’ books were making big profits they wouldn’t feel the need to publish their line of porn comics (I have no problem with porn comics but they sit uncomfortably next to comics which are meant to be very deep and meaningful and serious).
Rather than attempting to replicate the success of Cerebus, Elfquest and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles self publishing has become a not-for-profit pursuit. Small press publications are now generally perceived as a charitable exercise. If business is good comic shops will order a few more and feel that they are “doing their bit”. Now that the direct sales market is getting a bit tougher Diamond has decided to make it even harder for small press books to get into their catalogue. Mostly they have been replaced by graphic novels (often by complete unknowns) which retail at $16 or more, this can hardly encourage new readers.
Marvel and DC are the trendsetters sales-wise, and as their sales fall all other sales figures fall in proportion. Diamond are effectively choking off the possibility of new comic books coming through, so the market is locked into a failing model and unable to find new material to boost sales. Not that the small press is doing much to help its own cause, seeming to deliberately produce books of a non-commercial nature. Perhaps we now have a generation which has never known anything but the direct sales market and think that it will always be there no matter what they do either as distributors, retailers or creators.
To a large extent the indie/small press market is full of material for those already steeped in comic strips and is deemed a bit more intelligent than super-hero comics, but trying to use this material to attract new readers has failed to lay proper foundations. At the moment most comics are aimed at an audience in its late teens or early twenties, the amount of comics available to kids and pre-teens is tiny by comparison. The industry would have far more success if it sold comics to its audience from the time they are kids, a progressively higher proportion of them would still be into comics when they grow up. At the moment we’re waiting until they’re 16 or 17 and suddenly saying “Start buying comics!”
It is in the industry’s interest to nurture self published books, as they are a low cost method of finding new talent, in fact the talent takes on the financial risk themselves and are only too willing to do so. The new-comers are also able to produce whatever they want without any constraints being placed on them by a publisher. What is needed is some method by which retailers can make informed decisions on which of these ever-growing number of publications might appeal to their customers. The alternative is the current situation of Diamond refusing an ever larger number of new self-published books, and yes I know there are only so many pages in Previews, but since Diamond became the sole distributor to the direct sales market we have not had a self published hit. I think this is in equal parts due to Diamond’s policy and also to the evolution of self-publishing into a self indulgent, non-commercial hobby, as opposed to the proving ground for new talent and an indicator of a direction the comic market could take.
The profusion of self published books has mushroomed out of anybody’s ability to cope with. It seems that every fan wants to publish their own comic book, and bad writing and bad drawing are palmed off as being good for the medium because they’re not super-heroes. Even though the majority of books are awful it doesn’t mean they are failures, the creators have managed to complete and publish a comic book, which is no small achievement (of course completing and publishing a good comic book is a far greater achievement). While this is all well and good one cannot escape the fact that there is far too much sub-standard small press (and mainstream for that matter) work clogging up Previews and on-line sites and convention tables. If Previews had stuck to the original guideline of only rejecting small press work which didn’t achieve a certain level of quality instead of making editorial decisions (I know of comic professionals whose self published books have been rejected by Diamond) it might have a stronger small press line up.
To a certain extent once it was possible for small press books to enter the market it was always going to be a question of quantity rather than quality, but a mechanism needs to be put in place which can find the gems, and there will be gems in there (the first issue of Cerebus wasn’t great but it showed promise and got out there and developed). The current system has done little more than choke off the supply of indie and small press hits (Bone being the last small press book to take off), while indie publishers like Dark Horse and Image have primarily become launch pads for new creators rather than an alternative route for established creators.
The battle cry for creator’s rights which launched First, Eclipse and Pacific is now somewhat muted, with many creators just itching to sign up to Marvel and DC as their bigger advertising budgets get them much higher sales figures than the current indies. The small press scene has become just as formulaic as the mainstream, and it’s no longer a badge of honour to simply not do a superhero strip, in fact we now see that the general public actually likes superheroes!? They’ll probably be on our movie and tv screens for the next couple of decades at least.
The small press is no longer the first wrung in a career for those hoping to work professionally, it has become a hobby in and of itself, yet Dave Sim and Eastman & Laird all started out as small press creators. The hobby aspect of creating comics is gradually creeping further up the food chain, now full colour comics are produced as a hobby. While this is all well and good it does tend to once more flood the market, whereas previously one would assume that a photocopied comic was produced by a fan and a full colour comic produced by a pro, now there is no way of knowing (especially when a fan gets a good artist to produce the cover). We are left with that same problem of finding the diamond in the (very) rough.
Collecting comics is a hobby, producing fanzines is a hobby, but producing quality comics which are professionally distributed is a craft and a profession. If the comic medium in the UK and US had not shrunk so dramatically the two aspects would be kept apart, but conventions now often rely on small press publishers to buy table space at their conventions. While not wishing to chip away at the democratic aspect of comic production one cannot turn a blind eye to the effects it has on the market. The lines between fan and pro work have become terribly blurred and need to be bought back into focus.
If there were more direct sales distributors it would be fairly simple to introduce a system by which the smallest distributor had first pick of new small press books, next biggest distributor then could pick from small press books and so on (like the American football draft system). I think this would raise the standard of small press books instantly (but there is only Diamond as sole distributor to the entire industry so this idea is completely superfluous).
One should not lose sight of the fact that every small press book is (or should be) a new way of doing comics, with new content and a new approach. The majority of Marvel and DC’s lines are basically one approach to comics. Seen in this light each new small press book punches far above its weight and offers the entire market a possible new direction. The small press is an ideal place for innovation, but unfortunately there is too much imitation.
This section will mostly refer to the American market as we are generally dealing with Hollywood’s adaptation of US comic books and graphic novels.
While many saw the Richard Donner Superman movie and the Tim Burton Batman movies, and their sequels, as adaptations of comics, I saw them as adaptations of successful tv shows. The only surprise for me was that Wonder Woman did not follow. It was another ten years before film makers actually started adapting comics into movies.
It is hard to imagine a greater boost to any product than big budget Hollywood movies, but we have seen a steady decline in comic book sales over the past ten years. Top selling comics used to clock in at 300,000 and now they score 100,000. Why have comic books not managed to capitalize on the increased awareness created by movie adaptations?
While the Spider-Man, X-Men and Hulk movies have not increased the sales of those comic books, which still primarily sell in the direct sales market, individual graphic novels can benefit from a movie adaptation.
Personally I think the general market’s acceptance of comic book movies was probably due to computer games, which feature action heroes with strange powers battling endless adversaries. Comic book characters had fleshed out back stories which film makers could use, while computer game characters had none.
Unfortunately movies based on comic books are generally awful. Hollywood doesn’t understand comic books, and it hasn’t understood science fiction either, even though it’s been making lots of science fiction movies since Star Wars. When movies are based on long running characters Hollywood basically takes a supermarket approach (the 600+ issues of Spider-Man being the supermarket). They walk down the aisles picking story ideas off the shelves and putting them all into a shopping basket and turning that into something which they hope will resemble a story.
The movies have shown that a general audience can accept comic book characters, especially those who have stood the test of time and hold a place in their collective consciousness. This should be encouraging news to comic publishers.
Comic publishers have yet to find a way to turn general acceptance of comic book characters into comic book sales. This leads me to believe that there is a fundamental problem with the product turned out by comic book companies, and as I’ve stated before I think it is the length of the monthly comics and the proliferation of different versions of popular characters. If a moviegoer sees a movie based on a graphic novel it is simple for them to go into a shop and buy that graphic novel. If he likes a Batman or Spider-Man movie there is no simple answer as to which comic he should pick up that would feed the interest generated by that movie. It is too much to expect a new-comer to buy every Batman or Spider-Man comic, and keep buying them until they finally “get it” (that’s assuming they ever would).
Hollywood generally makes pretty awful movies, but that doesn’t stop them from making lots and lots of money because lots and lots of people go to see those awful movies. Hollywood has created a system which promotes all their movies to the general market and creates a feeling that they must see these movies whether they’re good or bad. This did not happen by accident, this is a deliberate strategy and it’s called marketing. Comic books engage in very little marketing, but do they not engage in marketing because their books don’t sell, or do their books not sell because they don’t engage in marketing?
The movies can (and should) act as marketing for the comic books they are based upon, but as I have said before this works better with individual graphic novels than with long running series. However comic books have a long history of not marketing their product, and one has to wonder why they go to all the trouble of producing comics only to keep it a secret by not advertising. Most other entertainment media factor in marketing or advertising into their budgets, a Hollywood studio can spend as much on advertising as it does on the production of a movie.
Does Hollywood just see comics as a fad that they will outgrow and leave behind, or will it establish itself alongside the science fiction and horror genres as one of the sources of exciting fantasy entertainment. It may be that the proliferation of the computer game with its garish power fantasies may benefit comics in the long run. However that will all be for nothing if the comic industry cannot generate comic book sales, which is their core business and their fundamental reason for existence.
I fear for the comic book companies if they start to see the comics as a means to an end rather than the end in and of themselves. I think it would be easy for the heads of big comic companies which have been bought by corporations to be blinded by the glitz and glamour of the movies. If with all this publicity, marketing and exposure they cannot increase their sales then they should take a good long look at what they’re doing and ask themselves where they are going wrong.
It is also important that comic book writers do not fall under the spell of Hollywood and suddenly think that they are sought after talent. The script of a movie is the easiest thing to change, producers, directors and actors all feel that they can (and should) have an input. The cameraman probably has more autonomy than the script writer because no one can come up to him and start suggesting what depth of field he should have or which filter to use etc (that’s far too technical for nearly everyone in Hollywood except other cameramen!). If the writer comes so low on the pecking order then the comic book writer who supplies the writer with the raw material comes even lower.
Most comic book writers are fortunately ill suited to the schmoozing and politics of Hollywood, although some have taken to it like a duck to water. If they actually make it in Hollywood, climbing up that slippery ladder from writer to executive producer to co-producer, very few of them will have sustained success (very few producers of any stripe have long term success). For them there will always be the safety net of comic book writing where they can be big fish in a little pond.
The adaptation of so many comics has led to a great many creators from outside the industry using comics as a stepping stone to a movie. It remains to be seen if comic publishers will begin to see the creation of a comic company as an entity to be sold to the first corporation which comes along (like so many dot.coms). We are also seeing a great many comic books now being produced in a movie friendly style. The fact that they don’t sell very well as comic books (because they are not playing to the strengths of the comic strip medium) doesn’t matter, they are merely a stepping stone to a movie deal. Who remembers, or has even seen, the original comic book version of Men In Black which the movie was based on? To a certain extent the comic is becoming an irrelevance compared to the possible movie it might spawn.
With so many comic strips being turned into movies why have we not seen existing comic companies creating new characters and new comic companies coming into existence? As for new companies I would guess that they look at the business model on which the direct sales market is based on and realize that it’s a very difficult market to understand yet alone break into. It cannot be that they believe only long established characters can make the leap to movies, Ghost World, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hellboy, Kick Ass etc are all relatively new comic books.
Surely anyone involved in other media would see comic books as a very low cost, and therefore low risk, enterprise. Compared to making a movie producing a comic is a fraction of the cost and also takes a fraction of the manpower. Book publishers have entered the market rather than periodical publishers, but individual graphic novels as we have seen are a very hit and miss proposition. As I stated in my first blog it is the regular visit to a recognizable character in a distinctive style which builds the audiences’ affinity with a comic strip.