Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Comics Part 1: Dancing Toward Oblivion

It’s clear to anyone who follows my blogs, (Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there?), that one of my favorite things in the world is comic books. At this point in the history of the art form this is a deeply challenging love.

There’s no denying that the comics biz has taken its lumps in the last three decades.

The business is in trouble.

I don’t want to waste too much time on the many reasons this is so, but a few salient points of information are required for the uninitiated.

1)    Direct Distribution

How it happened:
In the late seventies and early eighties, as comic shops became more prevalent, distributors began to shift their attention from the traditional newsstand, and drug store markets and into the comics shops. Eventually, this became the only real target market. On the up side, more adult content was developed to interest the aging customer base, but unfortunately, the simpler, more kid-friendly comics content began to disappear.

Why it’s bad:
No new, young buyers. As the comics fans of the era began to age, no new generation of comics fans was being wooed to the form. If they didn’t go into a comics shop for some reason, they just never discovered the medium. While the emergence of more adult content was a good thing in some ways, it was a double-edged sword. Some content was genuinely more sophisticated, but some was simply prurient “adult” material designed to make a quick sale. Direct distribution also eventually led to the major comics distributors merging into one big, monopolistic company.

2)    Image Comics: Style Over Substance

How it happened:
As the nineties rolled around, comics experienced a temporary boom in sales. (Mostly due to the falsely inflated “collectors market”, as discussed below.) At that time, some of the major illustrators working at Marvel comics did a little math and realized that their “work for hire” page-rate contracts were unconscionably shabby and that their financial benefit to the company was substantial. They demanded a piece of the profits and ownership of their work. Marvel balked. In response the artists formed their own company, Image Comics.

Why it’s bad:
They made bad comics. (And some bad business decisions) These talented illustrators made the very strange choice to write their own comics. Unfortunately, as writers, they made very good illustrators. At the time they split from Marvel, there was a great deal of buzz about how this might be a real game changer, but ultimately, after an initial year of incredible sales the image of Image began to tarnish.
Most of the books were so badly written they were barely readable. Effective page design and storytelling were sacrificed to slick, vacuous, pin-up style artwork, and regular publishing schedules gave way to increasingly inconsistent production. Hey, I get it, they were young guys, they were suddenly making hundreds of thousands of dollars, they goofed off. (Most of them, anyway.) But, it was a bad choice. Eventually many of the titles at Image were being farmed out as piece work, just like at any other company.
Marvel and DC both responded with equally weak, vacuous comics, bad promotional gimmicks like embossed covers, multiple covers and other sales-grabbing techniques. It was a very bad scene. It nearly led to the death of Marvel Comics, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 1996. It did, however lead to better profit sharing contracts and creator owned imprints at the major companies.
You can read more about this stuff here:
And here:

3)    The Collectors Market

How it happened:
Right around the time the Image guys were doing their thing, comics sales were at their highest point in years. This was due to a unique phenomenon called the “collector’s market”. What happened was, word got out that people with basements full of old comics from the 40’s a 50’s were discovering there was a lucrative market for these aging magazines. A large group of people started buying up multiple copies of new comics as a form of financial speculation.

Why it’s bad:
The thinking was: “I’ll buy these up and in 20 years they’ll be worth a fortune. Of course it doesn’t work that way. The comics of the 40’s and 50’s were considered throwaway items, and were printed on cheap, acidic paper. Therefore, very few survived, and even fewer survived in good condition.
A few hundred copies and a high demand equals a high price, thousands of copies and low demand means not worth a plugged nickel. After a while it became clear that no one was going to make a lot of money from these comics, and the speculators simply stopped buying them.
Read more on this here:

4)    Digital Media / Superhero Movies

How it happened:
The personal computer became ubiquitous in Western society, and digital effects technology became highly sophisticated. The big comics companies began actively marketing their properties to Hollywood, which could now convincingly present the mighty feats of these larger-than-life characters through digital effects.

Why it’s bad:
It’s an issue of competition from other media. Specifically, digital video games, internet social media like Facebook and Twitter along with internet delivery of TV, movies, and the sort of homemade videos one finds on YouTube. These distractions are a lot more accessible and more insidiously addictive than comics ever were.
Yes, there are comics on the web, but digital delivery is a poor fit for the form. The shape isn’t right, you can’t easily flip between pages, and it doesn’t move. Scott McCloud’s blue-sky theories aside, (http://scottmccloud.com/) I personally don’t believe comics have a big future on the web. Some would argue there are a few dedicated people out there making profitable web-comics, but they generally have a very different definition of “profitable” than I have. I hope I’m wrong though, because we do need a new delivery system.
As for the movies, there are many reasons I think they are bad for the humble comics that spawned them, but I’ll just mention two. First, they are big, loud, pretty, and they move. (And have enormous budgets for promotion, which comic books don’t.) Also, Hollywood has no real respect for these iconic characters and they’re happy to water down the fundamental strengths of the characters for short term ”coolness”.

5)    Huge Entertainment Conglomerates

How it happened:
Same as what happened with all sorts of companies. They want to establish a worldwide presence, become large and powerful on the world stage and get ALL the money.

Why it’s bad:
It’s bad because the actual money made by comic book companies is insignificant in comparison to the money made by movies, television and video games. Also, the licensing and marketing of the comics properties is more profitable than the comics themselves.

The Terrible Unspoken Truth is that the big comics companies don’t really care that much about their comics being of high quality or creatively fruitful. They don’t care if they protect the integrity of the characters, or even if the comics are fundamentally profitable, because they make most of their money from licensing T-shirts and coffee mugs and making movies.

There are myriad other problems of course, and some bright spots, but the bottom line is, the comics are in trouble. 

Is there a solution?

I honestly don’t know.

There’s a lot of buzz about a “Creator’s Revolution’ on the web right now. A lot of talk about diversity, and opportunity and the future of the industry, some of which was touched off by a controversial video created by cartoonist Eric Powell. Eric has since removed the video and you can read about his reasons here:

Illustrator Michael Netzer has started a petition, and even filed a complaint against Marvel and DC with the Federal Trade Commission. You can read about that, here:

I’m reading the debates with interest, and I’m trying to weed out the possible solutions from all the bluster.

However, in the next few installments I’m going to offer a few thoughts of my own from the perspectives of both devoted fan and interested professional.

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