FreakSugar contributor Tim Avers discusses issues that the comic book business has in America and possible ways to address those problems.
In recent years, San Diego Comic-Con has become the annual center of geek culture and controversy. In addition to simply being a huge gathering of comic enthusiasts, retailers, publishers, and creators, bigger media have given the show serious credence.
As such, things that are said off the cuff or with seriousness at SDCC get equal coverage and echo throughout the Internet. Two such instances recently occurred at a DC Comics panel in which the Batman publisher bemoaned a slump in sales and offered up what they believe will be a solution.
Comics are a terrific product. They get dogged all the time in the United States for a variety of reasons. Nearly all these reasons go back to one very old fact inherent in the very term we use for their reference.
“Comic book.” If you use the term regularly chances are you don’t immediately equate them with “funny books,” but the terms are synonymous. The word “comic” of course relates to humor which was at the time a form of entertainment conveyed more frequently in this medium. The first comics were collections of newspaper strips. Earliest examples include the nearly forgotten Yellow Kid and Little Nemo. Yes, Superman was in there fairly quick in terms of the development and popularity of comics, but so was the Crypt Keeper.
Comic books also held a second meaning that have kept them down on a number of levels. Despite containing literary ambition and entertainment quality equal to the Greek myths and great social satires, comics have long been considered a less serious form of entertainment and art. Ironically, as people began to embrace the silver screen, few people today might imagine comics were equal in popularity. At their height, comic books and movies were consumed competitively – comics were being read by the same number of people as were seeing films. Think about that for a moment and imagine a comic book making $300 million. In case you need some scale, most comics today are lucky to sell 10,000 copies, meaning they have gross revenue equal to that of a single mid-price automobile.
So, what the hell happened to comics? It’s really a number of things over many decades. Comics didn’t begin on a really good foot. They were printed on newspaper which was cheap and disposable. They had fewer words than most short stories. They had minimalistic artistic presentation due mostly to their quick production time. But for lack of a comic book lending library, funny books were swapped person to person. By the time of WWII comics hit their high water mark. And then Dr. Phil came along.
Well, not Dr. Phil, but a pop psychologist in his mold. This man was psychologist Fredric Wertham. Looking for a reason for a rise in what was seen as juvenile delinquency, Wertham fixated on comic books. He saw them as manuals for crime, homosexuality, disrespect to elders, and unhealthy and fantastic distractions from civic conformity. At the same time his book Seduction of the Innocent became popular, the mid 1950s, the US Senate was asking some of the same questions about why young people weren’t conforming to the “Pleasantville” way of thinking. It’s almost absurd to think about today with violent gun crime, drug use, and sexual assault being daily topics of the news only at their most extreme but there was a time Washington, DC thought it could prevent these things by censoring comic books. Later it would go after pin-up models like Bettie Page and rock and roll musicians. You can see how well that worked.
The comic book publishers decided to censor themselves largely in a move by the predecessor to the modern DC to put their competitor and publisher of “Tales from the Crypt” out of business. The result was 20 years of very silly comics with reduced cultural relevance. This reputation would follow comics until an Underground Railroad for more serious content went mainstream years later.
In the meanwhile, comics were further relegated to the rubbish heap and bird cage by literary critics and the art community. Despite the fact that Roy Lichtenstein would directly use cribbed comic panels as social satire and that Andy Warhol employed their simplistic execution to revolutionize art and shape media for decades, the funny books were regarded as being of less merit than advertising art and dime novels.
Comics have always carried these three legacies of shame – that they are physically cheap, that they allegedly appeal to the lowest common denominator, and that they lack the credibility of “real” art.
Given these things it’s really hard to believe that comic books have held on so long, or that they would, after a tough, 25-year battle, crown the cineplex – but they have. By late fall you might be able to go to the movies without a four-color hero’s name on the marquee. Maybe. You will not an able to escape super-hero t-shirts in the men’s and women’s department of your local big box store.
Superheroes are everywhere. But are comics?
No, they’re not.
There are many reasons why a business once consumed at the same level as movies fell so far. Some of them have been outlined already but there are more relevant, current reasons and they revolve around a niche publishing category that consciously reacts to its history rather than making its own. And that is ultimately the problem of comics today.
To avoid boring details let’s get right to the most unknown part of the problem with comics, which is distribution. Most comics in the US today get to readers from publishing houses via a third party. For about 20 years there has been only one distributor – Diamond Comics Distributors located in the Baltimore, MD area. Diamond has a number of distribution centers around the US that line up roughly with the one of the big American shoppers, Federal Express.
Because Diamond has an effective monopoly on distribution it has a lot of power over the business. Think of Diamond as an insurance company that has grown to dictate what kind of care you can get, at what cost, and how it’s delivered. This is pretty much what Diamond does and the problem is like that with any middle man – Diamond’s costs come out of the bottom line for both the publishers and the stores who sell comic books. Lacking competition, Diamond also has the service and customer care issues of a cable provider. Today as 20 years ago Diamond employs people who are very bad at packing comics for shipment resulting in damaged product and product that sometimes gets lost altogether.
You can’t blame Diamond entirely for this. They’re like any other company trying to make a buck and cheap labor is one way they do it.
Inflation hits companies that sell low-dollar products very hard and on average you have three parties – the retailer, Diamond, and the publisher all trying to make a living and pay their employees off a product that only sells for $3. Wrap your head around that one more time – your local store, the people who ship stuff there, and all the artists and writers and printers and everybody else have to split $3 and try to survive on it.
Is it not amazing now that they’re still in business at all?
We have to pass over a lot of other issues here but briefly here are some of comics other challenges – competition from video games, digital subscription services that deliver unlimited entertainment for the cost of just three comics a month, movies that portray characters cannibalizing the comics audience, an aging primary target market, narrative difficulties with 75-year-old characters, inflation and cost of living squeezing quality creators out of the business, retail competition for price, declining margins, and volume barriers to entering the retail market are just a few. Largely, ownership by larger media conglomerates, Warner Brothers and Disney, is the only thing that has saved the big two publishers from financial failure that would collapse the rest of the business with them.
Again, pretty bleak. Now, are you still wondering why the cultural representation of the Comic Book Guy is an irritable man-child with a dirty shop? Thank God for the rare professional store.
So, okay, we’ve focused a lot on what comics don’t have going for them. Let’s talk about what they do:
Libraries: Do you ever use one? They have comic book sections now. Not flimsy comics, of course, but the collected ones called “graphic novels.” That’s a revolution in terms of the consumption of the art form.
Greater marketing: The movies and the popularity of Japanese animation have brought people out to comic shops and made people care more about B-list characters and obscure series than ever before. This has translated into better foot traffic for shops.
Academic scholarship: In past years there has been a greater recognition of comic books as an art form and education is an important step in reversing the stigma comics have carried since the ’50s.
Diversity: The comic book business and comic fandom was for many years an impenetrable boys club for a particular crowd of men lacking something in terms of social graces. With broader mainstream exposure this once inaccessible, sometimes smelly network of Y-chromosome carriers has become more welcoming of female patrons, creators, and at the same time people of more diverse backgrounds and sexual orientation. Frankly there was always a following for comics in the African-American and closeted queer community, but now diversity is more broad and out in the open.
So these are some strengths, but they seem to come too little too late for some naysayers and pessimists.
But frankly there’s a lot of hope and there are many opportunities for the comics business left. It’s only a matter of how to take advantage of them. And that’s a tricky thing because it’s almost impossible to test solutions in any way other than trial and error. However, we do have knowledge of a lot of things that have been tried and did not work. And we can look at other industries and see what does.
Just a few suggestions then:
Embracing fandom: Probably the greatest thing that’s happened for comics readers in the last few years is the spirit of fans new and old for the characters and properties in comics. This is reflected not just in how much money “fanatics” are willing to spend but also in the lengths they go to show their pride. The greatest example are the cosplayers who bring their skill and energy to bear in a showcase of beloved and obscure characters alike. These folks must be encouraged and welcomed by shops and for the most part are. They need acknowledgment in the comics themselves.
Broader media and business opportunities: Big box retail acknowledges the public popularity of comic character by carrying products that carry iconic images, creating mini-collector areas in their stores, etc. Trusted brands like Lego have licensed superhero characters and even done their own stylized character films. The big publishers need to court not just book stores but these retailers as well.
Recognizing and respecting retail: Not all comic shops carry a diverse product line including independent and small press comics but distribution and publishers need to get behind retail and acknowledge that at this point they have few other places to go. Big box stores want to cash in on the present popularity of superheroes but they will never represent deep margins for the comic publishers themselves.
Reforming distribution: This has been a long time coming and has to be done very strategically. Likewise, Diamond needs to be seen not as a necessary evil but a vital partner in the business as currently structured.
Embracing the digital age: The technology exists today for retailers to benefit directly and sell digital comics but this is something publishers must fully embrace. Half-measures have been taken by putting digital codes in print comics but the big two need to join hands to get behind a system that will allow retailers to sell any comic in print to any consumer on any device.
Affordable entertainment: Ultimately in order to capture the public imagination and revenue comics need to be able to deliver an entertaining product. Not gimmicks. Not $15 single-issue variant covers, poly-bagged with a collector card. Quality storytelling that is driven by engaging and inspiring stories and art. Gloomy comics can be fun but positive stories can be awesome.
Trends come and go but comics, we hope, are forever. They will be if we all get behind them