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).