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.