Part 1. BASICS & THE UK MARKET
Part 2. US MARKET
Part 3. DISTRIBUTION & DIRECT SALES
Part 4. BOOK PUBLISHERS
Part 5. MOVIE ADAPTATIONS
Part 6. INDIE & SMALL PRESS
Part 7. CONVENTIONS
Part 8. ...AND HOW TO FIX IT
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.
While it may be a very welcome fact that book publishers have discovered comic strips, I fear it owes more to the fact that general sales of books are declining and that twice as much can be charged for a graphic novel. As with so many other aspects of the comic strip it is aimed at the adult reader, completely bypassing the younger reader which forms the bedrock of comic strips as a mass medium (again keeping sight of our fundamental aim: re-establishing the comic strip as a mass medium).
The decline in book sales is an indicator of the general “dumbing down” in society, with visual media taking the place of the written word. Movies, television and video games now rule, requiring very little effort from their audience. The comic strip can benefit from this cultural trend, offering an experience which floats somewhere between the written word and visual media. We are entering a period of transition which seems tailor made for our medium.
If one adds the rise of the Asian markets, which are eager to learn the English language as a way of trading with the west, and for whom comics are an accessible way of helping their kids to learn English, it seems now is the time for the comic strip to come to the fore.
When I first went to school I could not speak or read English, and had to attend special classes to catch up with the rest of my predominantly English classmates. I made swift progress because I augmented the usual Janet and John books with comics which I could gradually decipher. I slowly began to understand what these characters were saying to each other having been attracted to them by the artwork (I only read speech balloons at first and didn’t bother with “boring” captions).
I entered a primary school being unable to read but in the first year of my secondary school I got the best grades in English for the entire year, not just my class (and I still mostly read comic books). So I can attest to the teaching power of comic books when it comes to learning English.
Unfortunately many book publishers hire editors with no experience in comic books, who in turn often hire creators whose first work in comic strips is a graphic novel. A graphic novel should be the destination for a creator, not the starting point. Creators, especially artists, grow with each job they complete and see in print. Therefore in the early stages of a career it is useful to work on short comic strips, which unfortunately there are all too few of now.
UK and US book publishers are also going straight to book form, and not publishing magazines. The medium has been established in other countries by publishing serialized comic strips in weekly or monthly magazines which are then collected into books. The subject matter for US and UK graphic novels is also not mainstream, but the type of marginal books which are only published in other countries because they have a thriving mainstream market. Once again this shows a failure in understanding the basics.
The best selling graphic novels in France sell almost half a million copies, and have built up their readership over the years with various collections, and having started in magazines. The US and UK book markets will never achieve those figures until they accept that they are possible if they change the way they publish. Perhaps the book trade will learn the lessons that the comic book market has been unwilling to, after all one would hope that the book trade is run by business people who act in a more business like fashion.
My fear is that the book trade is merely looking for a quick fix to its own problems and has little stomach for the long term investment needed to nurture a new market. The sector’s interest in graphic novels may owe more to the number of movies based on them than any real interest in (or understanding of) the medium, but any glimmer of expansion of the medium is to be welcomed.
The interest in graphic novels, which is generated by their adaptation into big budget Hollywood movies, has attracted novelists and graphic artists to the field who have suddenly revealed a life long interest in the medium (even stand up comedians are hoping their graphic novel will be turned into a movie!). Unfortunately the medium in the UK and US is desperately trying to establish itself with a wider audience, and I’m afraid I would have to say that the last thing it needs is creators who have absolutely no experience in the creation of comic books.
Book publishers do already have relationships with many of these people and find it easier to deal with them. They also find it very easy to adapt books into graphic novels as they are on familiar ground, which has led to a plethora of classic comics. The market is awash with endless adaptations of Shakespeare, and flooded with Dickens etc. Perhaps the book market is more like the comic book market than I thought as it just does what is “easy”.
One problem which established comic book creators do present the book market with is the lack of many long term collaborations. The mainstream market does not follow the comic book fan press and keep up to date on all the creators’ activities. They expect books to look and read the same each time they pick them up, which gives writer/artists a distinct advantage over creative teams (unless they make long term partnerships).
This feeds in to the fundamental strength of the comic strip, the establishment of a character represented in a specific style (as I explained earlier). It is the specialist comic book market which has allowed characters to morph into mere shadows of themselves being changed every few months by migratory creators. Many newspaper strips have retained their distinctive visual style (and popularity) while being produced by a succession of creators, because they maintain a “house style”.
Book publishers also seem to fall into the trap of hiring a creator who has already been published by another book publisher. I would point out that if the first publisher has not gone back to that creator and commissioned a second book it is because the first book didn’t sell. Unfortunately there are a fair few creators who have produced single graphic novels for a variety of publishers. Inexperienced editors obviously feel they are on safe ground with these creators but if they delivered sales then they would still be working for the first publisher.
It is for this reason that weekly and monthly anthologies lead to successful book collections, the readers tell the editors which strips are their favourites. The graphic novel collections are then not a complete shot in the dark but a reaction to readers’ response. Editors are therefore not scrambling around gambling on creators and taking the safe route of someone who they know has at least been published before.
In Japan and Europe comic strip collections come in fairly standard sizes, which the general public are used to, while in the US and UK graphic novels come in all different shapes and sizes and are treated more like art books. If UK and US publishers want to sell their products to foreign markets then they would do well to package them in formats which the foreign markets are familiar with.
The high cost of graphic novels is something which cannot be ignored. If I read an average paperback on the way to and from work every day it might cost £6.99 and take me all week to read. In that time I could read about 10 graphic novels, most of which are priced over £10 (at a conservative estimate we’re probably over £150 for a week’s reading material)! On a purely economic level there is a huge disparity between the two media. This means that the graphic novel becomes a bit of a treat and something to look forward to (the publication of your favourite character’s latest collection), savoured in the comfort of your own home.
The attention drawn to the graphic novel thanks to movie adaptations has attracted many creators from outside the medium. Unfortunately the market is not established yet and there is a distinct lack of seasoned professionals who have switched from the direct sales market and made concerted efforts to reach a more mainstream market. It’s true that after a great many years of producing basically whatever they want (as many of the top names can) it is difficult to produce work to appeal to an audience that is unfamiliar with comic strips. The different pay system, a small advance against royalties instead of a guaranteed page rate, is also a bit of a culture shock for long standing comic professionals.
There is a huge talent pool made up of seasoned pros that have not been given carte blanche by comic book publishers but could easily adapt to the new mainstream type of work given the opportunity. This would be much better than graphic novels being produced by first timers and people who just fancy having a go at a graphic novel (including stand up comedians!).
The book trade is still trying to establish the graphic novel market in the UK and the US and has to be sure of the material it puts out and whether it is going to lead to more sales. If a customer decides to give graphic novels a chance and picks up a sub-standard piece of work which puts him off the medium then we’ve lost that reader, possibly forever. He can go see a couple of awful movies and not stop going to the movies because that medium is established (he knows not all movies are awful – just most of them). The graphic novel does not have that luxury, for most people it’s a new thing which they’ve never tried before, therefore quality control at this early stage is important.
Something strange, and not all together healthy, has happened to magazine, and therefore comic book, distribution in the UK. I suspect, but admit I am no expert on the matter, that it has something to do with the supermarkets. These huge corporations attract suppliers with the vast numbers of customers who pass through their well-stocked aisles, but exact a heavy toll from those suppliers (a Faustian pact if you will). Unless a supplier has another form of distribution which it can rely on it is soon at the mercy of the supermarkets which exert their influence ruthlessly.
UK comic weeklies, and often US monthly imports, used to be available in any UK news agent. A fan of a UK comic could place a regular order with their news agent for that periodical, I had a weekly order for TV21 when I was young. Free gifts were limited to the first three issues of a comic book, or attempts to boost circulation. I have heard from some sources that IPC’s policy was to constantly cut the print run of their comic books, anticipating the drop in sales. This goes a long way to explaining why comics were so devilishly difficult to collect unless one placed the above mentioned standing order.
It does not take a genius to realize that constantly cutting your print run will not just anticipate a drop in readership, but cause a drop in readership. It was decisions such as these that I never dared to question as a youngster, believing that others were experts who knew far better than I. Such is not the case today, the costs of overprinting any nationally distributed magazine are minimal, and it is the most basic exercise in logic to compute that you cannot increase sales if there is no surplus product to sell.
Now in the UK hideous amounts of money seem to be paid over to distributors and supermarkets to carry, or “promote”, periodicals. Supermarkets seem to cherry pick the most profitable comic books, as they do with books, computer games and DVDs to stock, thus keeping their workload down and denying stores which deal primarily in such items valuable sales. Due to their massive buying power supermarkets can often offer these items at far lower prices. In the long run this will lead to books, DVDs and computer games etc only being available through supermarkets on the high street, and they will still only carry the most popular items, all other trade will inevitably be carried out on-line.
The UK comic book has unfortunately become part of this equation, with supermarkets accounting for a significant percentage of their sales. For my mind UK comic publishers no longer have a dialogue with their readers, instead they have a dialogue with supermarkets, who demand that there be a free gift and demand that they be in full colour, and demand that they have a promotion every six months, and if they don’t comply then they’ll be dropped and the supermarket won’t even notice because they carry 14,999 other goods in their stores and that one item is insignificant.
Of the six originated comics still distributed on UK news stands, Dandy, Beano, Commando, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine & Viz, 50% are in black & white, so colour is no guarantee of longevity. The Italian and Japanese comic book markets are also primarily black & white and suffer no ill effects because of it. Black & white reduces costs and allows publishers a greater degree of experimentation, and as I have stated previously the UK market must work its way through a great many failures before it can find a success.
The entry level for new publishers seems to be prohibitively high on UK news stands. Alternatively in France I understand that if you can afford to print 30,000 copies of a periodical you are guaranteed distribution by law, which democratizes publishing to a great extent.
While we’re looking at Europe I’d just like to extol the virtues of the Italian system of edicolas, which are small kiosks on almost every other corner on Italian streets. They carry newspapers, magazines, comic books, puzzle books, part-works, DVDs, etc. One cannot walk for longer than 5 minutes without stumbling across one in any major Italian town. It is this ubiquitous system which has led to Tex and Dylan Dog clocking up a whopping 800,000 combined sales every month, a total reached with a new edition of each title plus a couple of re-prints and occasional specials, but impressive figures nevertheless for a country with a population below 60 million.
It is the publication of comic strips in periodicals, which are then collected into book formats which has underpinned the success of comics in both the European and Japanese markets, therefore it is essential for both the UK and US comic book industries to have effective distribution. I believe that neither the US or UK comic industries have that effective distribution, although, even with its problems, the UK industry is still on news stands.
The US comic book has retreated almost totally from news stand sales, although titles such as the Simpsons and Archie Comics are still released to both news stand and direct sales markets.
At one point, a few years into the direct sales revolution, the future evolution of the comic book market seemed set on a steady course. Marvel and DC released comics to both news stands and direct sales shops attracting new young readers, and an ever-growing number of them would stick with comic books as they saw older readers continuing to buy comics from direct sales shops. There would no longer be the stigma attached to buying comics from a news stand when you were a grown up, a feeling many of us older readers still remember.
The direct sales shops allowed much smaller companies (indies) to produce work aimed at a more comic savvy audience, that had grown up with and was committed to the medium. More adult material could be explored and niche product still be made available due to the firm sales policy of the direct sales market.
In many cases Marvel and DC would let the indies like Eclipse, Pacific and First establish markets and creators before launching their own attempts. The more lucrative deals offered to creators by the indies also led Marvel and DC to grant royalties and creator rights.
Regional direct sales distributors sprang up across the US and one was set up in the UK. A books’ print run was established after the publisher phoned all the distributors, which at one point was over a dozen, and got their firm orders. It is no surprise that during this period indie hits sprang up, titles such as Elfquest, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Cerebus. These were self-published black & white comics which made a tidy profit for their creators thanks to the formal distribution network established by the direct sales market.
When the market began to be flooded by cheap, low quality books, which were ordered on firm sale months in advance and sight unseen apart from a cover, the distributors were asked to carry out a limited form of quality control and ensure the book was actually finished.
It was a time of expansion, and informal rules being agreed by consensus, with distributors realizing that it was the comic shops that were at the sharp end, and the ones who would be left with unsold comics. This risk was diffused however, as most books were regular items and had a guaranteed following. New comics were treated cautiously and a “hit” comic could be re-ordered (TMNT#1 had several printings as what started as a joke title turned into a huge comic juggernaut).
Distributors began to merge until the US was left with just one distributor, Diamond. The entire US comic industry is now just a part of one company’s turn-over, which includes DVDs, tee-shirts, toys, role playing games, books, magazines, trading cards and novelties.
To a large extent Diamond decides the shape of the entire US comic book industry. Of course it doesn’t control Marvel, DC, Dark Horse or any of the established companies, but I think it is no surprise that the direct sales market has not had a bona fide self-publishing hit since Diamond became the sole distributor.
I believe that the long term well being of the entire industry depends on lots and lots of people all putting their idea of what a comic should be out there and letting the shops and readers make up their minds if they’re right. It is only this way that innovation will occur.
Marvel and DC both publish a huge number of titles which eats up most of the comic shops’ budgets. Any money left over is mostly spent on Dark Horse, Image and the other larger indies, which leaves very little money left for the self-published books, so no new Cerbus, TMNT or Elfquest.
This means that as Marvel and DC’s sales drop (ten years ago the top selling comic sold 300,000 today it sells 100,000) so do the sales of the comic shops. Over the years there have been a succession of new products which comic publishers and comic shops have used to bolster their sales; graphic novels, trading cards, role playing games, action figures, manga and statuettes. Many fall by the wayside, only lasting as long as it takes for a collector to try selling the first action figure or statuette they bought and realizing they’re not going to be able to retire on the proceeds. Comic shops should be proud of supplying reading material, as ordinary bookshops are disappearing from our high streets faster than you can say Amazon dot com!
It is the mixture of monthly comic books and graphic novels, and a core audience addicted to comics, that allow many of these shops to keep going. How long they’ll be able to do this without a massive injection of new customers is of critical importance. Now hardly seems to be the time to be putting up barriers to new product.
After thirty years of pontificating that “comics aren’t just for kids” the industry seems to nearly be waking up to the fact that it is producing little material which is child friendly. This brings few new readers into a market which has a dwindling customer base, most comic readers are 40 plus.
Despite the large number of comic books and graphic novels which comic shops complain they have to wade through I would struggle to put together a line up of books that would allow customers to seamlessly move from one type of book to the next. There are major gaps in the market, primarily at the younger age range of the market.
Readers are suddenly expected to get turned on to comics at the age of sixteen, having grown up on a steady diet of tv, internet, computer games, movies and CDs. With all their disposable income probably already allocated we feel that they’ll suddenly stop and pick up a comic and start reading it. Well I have no doubt that some of them do just that, but it’s obviously not as many as when kids grew up reading comics. Some of us stayed with comics even when there weren’t direct sales comic shops, and some of us remember feeling faint when they walked into a shop filled with nothing but comics.
The direct sales market, and primarily the distribution network, needs to find a way to allow the maximum number of new, indie comics on to the market without breaking under the pressure. Simply raising the bar for orders has led to an increase in graphic novel collections, and new readers are justifiably reluctant to pay £8/$12 for a book by a complete unknown. It seems another step towards a model which is replicated nowhere else in the world, one in which graphic novels replace comic book periodicals.
At one point I used to think that if comic shops simply dropped the lowest selling Marvel and DC comic and switched over to an indie comic that might gradually improve the situation. I now believe this idea to be wrong (there I admit I get things wrong). I believe that the lower selling Marvel and DC comics are ordered at just the right levels by comic shops, and offer a steady, reliable source of revenue, which is what every business needs.
I believe it is the “multi-part big event” comics which take up large amounts of a comic shop’s budget, and can often leave retailers with stacks of unsold copies. Marvel and DC know they just have to put out as much publicity about these books as possible and retailers will be worried about missing out on “the next big thing”. I have seen multiple copies of the first issue still on the shelves as the last issue comes out, and unless the publisher shipped out free extra copies of that first issue it’s the retailer who takes the financial hit, after all once the comic shop has placed a firm order on non-returnable books it’s their problem.
Comic publishers now have to sell to comic shop owners, not readers. If they can convince the retailer, who for their sins is completely immersed in the comic world, then they will sell large quantities of the comic book, and a couple of months later also sell a collected graphic novel version of the mini-series which the retailer still has unsold copies of!?
Most, if not all, comic shops are run by comic fans as opposed to hard-nosed business men, although they very soon have to develop some business acumen or go bust. For an sector which is mainly run by former fans surprisingly few comic shops do fold, whether this is down to good management or an insanely loyal customer base is open to discussion.
The comic shops are definitely at the sharp end of the business, and if they get their ordering wrong they are stuck with 3 months worth of stock which they cannot sell (as they order firm sales 3 months in advance). If they under order a book they can always re-order but too many copies of a book that isn’t selling are their problem.
Ultimately the comic shop owner who realizes it’s not about the comics he, or she likes but what their customers want that succeeds. Recently many owners have extolled the virtues of the graphic novel and proclaimed the death knell of the monthly comic book. It is only the regular sales of those monthly comic books that stops a comic shop becoming a niche independent book store, and independent book stores are unfortunately dropping like flies.
To help comic shops stay in, and hopefully grow their business, distributors must offer them as wide a range of material as possible, to supply the needs of long term comic fans and also new customers. With the hundreds of titles on offer it may seem that there is all the choice one could wish for, but when you actually break it down there are less choices than you might imagine. Also, quite logically almost all comics are aimed at the existing fan-boy market, as that is the profile of comic shop customers.
It seems very difficult to produce a comic for the direct sales market that appeals to the general market (the 99.99% of the population which doesn’t collect comic books) when the direct sales comic market is specifically geared over generations to cater to the 0.01% of the population which does collect comic books.
The US comic market is unique in that it has retreated almost totally from the news stands, making its periodical product available only through specialized comic shops. The US comic strip at one time ruled the world, reaching its peak during the Second World War, with comic books providing morale boosting propaganda and newspaper comic strips being fought over by magnates who used them to boost the circulations of their daily papers.
At that point the comic strip was a mass medium, reaching kids through comic books of all genres, and adults through newspapers. This material was also licensed all around the world alongside Hollywood movies, spearheading a brash, undemanding cultural imperialism.
Things started to go sour for the US market in the 50s when crime comics came under fire and EC’s horror comics were banned. EC was the most innovative, high quality company in the US, and its sales reflected that. EC published anthology crime, horror and science fiction titles, which had stable creative teams and hosts to introduce the stories. This goes a long way towards providing the reader with the familiar character, world and style which I have stated before is fundamental to the appeal of the comic strip.
Even when the hugely successful EC horror comics were banned the company launched a dazzling array of new titles in a bold attempt to find new genres which would appeal to their readers. Pirates, air aces, historical combat, journalism and medicine were all tried. It would be difficult to imagine a modern day comic company launching a comic dealing with, and attempting to explain, a new science (?), but EC did with a book on Psychoanalysis!
EC struck gold again with a comic book called MAD and quickly turned it into a magazine, thus leaving the comic book field far behind. This may have been done because comic books had somehow become tainted by the witch hunt carried out by Dr Frederick Wertham. In the minds of many comics were no longer a harmless form of entertainment, but instead they were carriers of hidden deviant messages capable of depraving and corrupting.
The EC example shows that comics in the US have gone through peaks and troughs, rather than a steady improvement in quality. Some of the best newspaper strip work was produced in the 40s and 50s, with a steady decline in quantity, quality and dimensions from the 60s onwards as newspapers cut back on their comic strips. Fawcett and EC both produced quality comic books before being forced out of business, Fawcett by a lawsuit from DC and EC by the Wertham witch hunt. At the same time Will Eisner was producing the wonderful Spirit comic section, which is an outstanding piece of work.
The next peak was the birth of Marvel comics, and a decade of innovation from Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, which only happened because the company was about to go bust and Stan Lee was encouraged to write the way he wanted to by his wife! It is on such last ditch efforts that industries change, as we can see from this example and the way the Harry Potter books have transformed the children’s book market. These are examples of publishers trying something new and it paying off ….big time.
Unfortunately the US comic book market has experienced a great many setbacks over the years, many of them self inflicted. The primary setback, which occurs with depressing regularity, is that of publishers taking the easy route, as we’ll see later.
The Marvel explosion and DC Comics’ response in the 70s produced some very good work and interesting attempts to expand the market such as DC’s Bigger & Better, 100 Page Giants and Warren’s anthology magazines. For various reasons, some highly contentious, these experiments failed, even though in my opinion they pointed the way forward.
The comic dealers were growing in numbers during the 70s and starting to set up shops which traded in comics, paperbacks and ephemera. It was Phil Sueling, in a stroke of sheer genius, who created the Direct Sales market, buying from Marvel and DC on a non-returnable basis and selling to comic dealers on the same non-returnable basis.
This helped to solve the problem of falling news stand sales by opening up another avenue of low-risk (make that no-risk) distribution. So the news stands made comic books available to the general public and the direct sales comic shops serviced the needs of the more serious collector, happy days! Until Marvel and DC decide that it was too much bother to keep putting comic books out onto the news stands and switched over to the direct sales comic shops exclusively.
This had many far reaching effects on the comic industry; it reduced the supply of new readers, and it fostered an incestuous product where comics were produced for people who read comics and not for the general public, to name but two. This has lead to successive generations in the US who are totally ignorant of comic books, only knowing the Hulk, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men from movies and tv. Also most Marvel and DC comic books are incomprehensible to potential new readers, being mired in decades of “continuity” and offering multiple variations of the same characters.
This leads me on to another failure of comic publishers. When I read comics as a child there was just one Spider-Man comic, while Superman and Batman appeared in maybe four or five titles each. Today Spider-Man and the X-Men at Marvel and Batman and Superman at DC appear in up to 10 titles each, with spin-off characters appearing in a further 10 books.
I trace this all the way back to the launch of Peter Parker Spectacular Spider-Man. Instead of saying what can we do to increase the sales of Spider-Man Marvel simply put out another comic featuring Spider-Man, and the first time that happened the book sold just as many issues as the original Spider-Man comic. The law of diminishing returns however saw subsequent additions to the Spider-Man line up generating lesser sales. This has now left Marvel and DC with a confusing line-up of books, presenting the same characters with wildly different approaches, but all mired in that “continuity” I mentioned before. This all came about because publishers thought it was easier to add another book to the line-up rather than try to increase actual sales. The easy option…
This also leaves a fan of the latest Spider-Man movie who wants to read the Spider-Man comic not knowing which of the multiple Spider-Man titles is the “real” Spider-Man, and if he did start reading one of the books he’d soon be mired in “continuity” he didn’t understand and coerced into buying other Marvel books which are part of a multi-part crossover!
As someone who grew up buying the new Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics, and being an avid reader of monthly US comics for over 20 years, I know that once you get off the merry go round it’s hard to get back on, and if you’ve never been on…forget it!
So we start to see a familiar pattern forming, small decisions, made because it’s easier for the publisher, all adding to a situation which keeps getting worse with each passing year. When Marvel was faced with the problem of writers and artists missing deadlines and having to run re-prints of previous issues managing editor Jim Shooter commissioned Editors to write fill-in inventory stories. On the face of it a sensible move, but the outcome was to produce a bland, formulaic scripting process, which gradually eroded the art of comic book writing.
So instead of finding a way to accommodate writers like Don McGregor, Doug Moench and Steve Gerber, who had a growing fan base, they were replaced by scripters who could easily hit a deadline. This is a practice which quickly spread to DC and the rest of the industry. If comic book writing was something which had to rival the eloquence of Alan Moore or the invention of Pat Mills then we might see a higher standard of work produced on a regular basis.
This retreat to the use of formulaic scripting and the inability to increase the sales on particular books has basically led to comics being written by the same pool of creators, with editors merely hiring writers who have been hired by other editors, and are therefore “safe”. Once you’ve been writing comics for a couple of years you’ll continue to be offered work and be able to write comics for as long as you want, after all no one expects you to increase sales.
Referring back to my basic premise, that the strength of the comic strip lies in a familiar character presented in a familiar way, we see US comic books veering wildly from this central philosophy. To a large extent the direct sales market follows creators, primarily artists, who drift not just from one book to another but from one company to another. Unfortunately this has led to transitory creators putting their own mark on characters before leaving and letting the next creator alter the character again (to show he’s got just as much clout as the last guy). This fundamentally weakens the appeal of characters and acts as a further barrier to the general public, who have not grown up with the vagaries of the direct sales market. The general public expects a comic strip character to be presented in a consistent style, for them Batman, Spider-Man or the Hulk is the star of the show.
The final nail in the chances of monthly US comic books appealing to a wider audience is their length. At 22 pages a monthly comic book offers 10 to 15 minutes of a continued storyline every month. What other medium would expect normal people, who send instant text messages, e-mails and can watch tv on-demand, to wait a month for the next 15 minutes of a storyline?
Marvel has four iconic properties, which the US public can recognize and understand, primarily because they’ve been on the tv at least since the 1980s, they are Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four and X-Men. DC Comics has two iconic properties, Batman and Superman, with Wonder Woman in danger of slipping off the radar of public consciousness due to lack of exposure. These characters could be launched back on to news stands and be recognized by the general public, but Marvel and DC would have to change their whole publishing model. They would have to put out 90-100 page stories a month, and establish a distinctive style guide for each character. This would require a team of artists breaking the work down into layout & main figure pencils, background pencils, main figure inks and background inks.
This erodes the position of the artist on these core books, but actually might allow Marvel and DC to once more reach the general public with their comic books, which for me is what it’s all about. Dark Horse could actually do the same thing with their Star Wars comic even though it is licensed (Hellboy lacks the longevity to make it a viable proposition). Whilst this may seem pretty radical, it is partly a return to the comic books of the 40s, which were much thicker, and also to Carmine Infantino’s experiment in the 70s with the Bigger & Better and 100 page giant comics (that were eventually planned to contain all new material).
If such an extreme strategy were to succeed I have no doubts that Marvel and DC would then try it with all their other characters, which would be a colossal mistake, but fits in with their policy of always taking the easy option. Different strategies would need to be devised for the other characters, who are not as well known as their main characters, despite what fanboys, and even editors and creators, may think.
Both Marvel and DC endlessly re-launch the same characters time after time, sometimes achieving a fleeting success (or what passes for it in the direct sales market) if a new “hot” artist is attached to the project. If a character has flopped in their previous launches why will they succeed this time? They probably won’t but much of the modern day comic industry is fueled by nostalgia, and writers and artists want to work on their favourite childhood characters. This has led to a lack of creativity, with writers not really knowing what constitutes a “character”, and the various elements which are needed to ensure on-going story-lines.
Most new characters are now just a design, they do not possess distinctive characteristics and attributes which differentiate them from all other characters. A few years back I devised a test to see if a comic book character was actually a well-rounded, completely thought out “person”. With Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four (Stan Lee was a master at this) I could imagine what they’d say if they sat down next to me, even if it did partly take the form of catchphrases. With many of the more modern “characters” it is impossible to do this, often because they have been created by artists who have decided to provide themselves with scripts.
The task which faces the US comic industry is huge, for thirty years they have concentrated on squeezing more money out of the same people, and have built an impenetrable barrier against new readers. Entire generations of creators have come and gone never knowing any other way of producing comic books. But one only has to look abroad to see other nations, with far smaller populations, achieving comic book sales which dwarf those of the USA. The decisions which face Marvel and DC are very difficult ones, and just the type they have dodged for many decades.
Now that both companies are owned by much larger corporations, which merely see them as source material for movies, nothing may change. I cannot see it to be in anyone’s interest to allow potentially huge comic book sales of nationally recognized characters to remain unexploited. It is an act of cultural negligence, and flies in the face of American capitalism and innovation, which the nation prides itself on.