HOW TO SAVE THE
A Fanzing Special Report
by Michael Hutchison, editor
ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND AT:
Note: The opinions expressed herein are solely those of Michael Hutchison and the industry professionals cited. While we will be seeking honest answers to the comic book industry's troubles, none of this should be misconstrued as derogatory comments about DC itself or its parent company, Warner Brothers. The whole point of this article is that we wish them both the best critical and financial success, and we are seeking ways that that might happen.
As Geordi LaForge often said,
The comics industry is in trouble. Sales are low. In fact, numbers that were once considered the cancelation point are now acclaimed as high sales figures! People wanting to get into the comics biz are told to instead pick a career with a future to it. Comic collecting is an unprofitable hobby, and comic shop owners are going to great lengths to sell off their inventory both indicators that there are more sellers and fewer buyers. And comics are sold in fewer and fewer places aside from comic shops.
In composing an article on this subject, I turned to numerous pros in the comic book industry. You'll find quotes from them in blue boxes throughout this piece. Many of them addressed the same problems or proposed the same solutions, but each spoke in their own way and it doesn't hurt to have a consensus! Some echoed points I'd already made in my rough draft, and others gave new insights into how this biz operates (or doesn't operate).
Before I can begin addressing solutions to this, let's look at some specifics of the industry as it stands today:
I'll continue in a minute but first, some words of wisdom from Chuck Dixon:
I think the basic challenge is getting kids into reading comics. This will be the thrust of my report. However, this is not a universally-accepted theory. There are all types of people in this world, and I have read statements to the effect that the solution to the comics industry's woes lie elsewhere.
The theory goes that comic books should try to emulate Japan, where grown men read comics in great numbers because they take comics seriously as an art form. (I won't go into how degrading and violent a lot of it is, although that's certainly something to bring up in a more lengthy discussion of the Japanese market.) Comic books should go the way of the dodo, replaced by graphic novels which cost $20+ and are sold amongst the regular books at the local B. Dalton and Barnes and Noble. As for content, forget superheroes, cowboys, soldiers, space rangers and other noble characters; instead, focus on "realistic, 3-dimensional characters" like drug addicts, hired killers, hookers and foul-mouthed ministers.
Which is, of course, poppycock. I'll use even stronger language: bullpoppycock. You're welcome to pursue such things if it's what trips your trigger, but it's not going to save the comic industry (or make the world a better place, In My Humble Opinion). I tried to be sarcastic in the previous paragraph, but the fact is you'll find many people who believe every word of what I said. You don't find them amongst the readers of JLA, Ambush Bug and Legion; more often, they're devout readers of Vertigo titles, Spawn, Vampirella, Lady Death and any other comic where a woman with 44DDs wears a piece of yarn for a costume. I don't mean to demean readers of those comics as a whole, as a person with diverse tastes can certainly enjoy the more adult comics on the market; however, I've run into many a hardcore devotee of such works who would, if it were up to them, reshape the comic world to be an (unintentionally) hostile one for kids.
In case you don't see the folly of this, let me share my reasoning, which I call:
You could skip perhaps any one of these steps without much trouble. And I'm sure that there are indeed some "mature title" readers who introduce non-comic-fans to their favorite titles, though even this requires some comic readers to get such a process started. I just don't think we'll ever reach a point where large numbers of people who live their first 15-20+ years of existence without reading a comic will just automatically get into The Invisibles or Books Of Magic. So, to be so into the fourth step of this process that you recommend discontinuing the first three is to be close-minded indeed.
With me so far?
Then here's something to consider: If you can't really have the fourth step without the first three, then neither can there be a comics market without the first and second steps. For much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, too much emphasis was placed on the last two steps and we all thought this was simply a transformation into a new world of comic books. I think we are reaping what was sown in 1985-1995, but I don't think it's too late to rebuild the system.
There are some who think that the comic book is fundamentally flawed and is of no interest to new kids, what with their Nintendos and Pokemons, their 24-hour kids channels and their videotape libraries, their non-stop TV watching (certainly more and more parents raise their kids without time limits on viewing) and the more adult content-laden shows (otherwise known as "garbage") which makes kids more "wordly" at a younger age. All these factors DO exist and are changing the way kids behave, but I reject this explanation for the state of the comic market. I'm NOT that old and nothing has really changed from the thriving comic market of the 1980s. I got into comics despite Atari 2600s and Colecovision, He-Man and G.I. Joe, Scooby-Doo and The Real Ghostbusters. We even had VCRs. (Granted, for a while they were as big as a refrigerator, cost $400 and loaded from the top, but they were VCRs.) I joke, but I think it's important to point out that kids haven't become different animals in only 10+ years' time. In fact, arcade games soaked more quarters out of me than they do out of kids today, yet I somehow found the money for an issue of Captain Carrot or Crisis on Infinite Earths.
I was introduced to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al through the Superfriends TV show on network television. Today, the popular and successful Superman/Batman Adventures is on the upstart WB network, which may or may not be as influential as the main networks (I'd be curious to see some figures on the reach of ABC/CBS/NBC vs. the WB, but cable/dish expansion has rendered this less of a problem than it once was). There are Superman movies and Batman movies which children, pre-teens and teens have seen in great numbers. There are Warner Bros. stores in many shopping malls and Superman/Batman action figures in the toy stores. Kids probably have more exposure to these characters than I had, and I think kids LIKE these characters as much as they ever did. So I don't think the explanation for the comics market is that Superman and Batman are things of the past.
In order for this theory (that kids have no interest in comics) to be true, kids would have to be passing them by despite a surplus of places to buy comics. Are you telling me that everywhere kids are going there are dozens and dozens of comics, well-displayed, at reasonable prices, with attractive covers that appeal to kids, and despite all that kids are turning up their noses at reading them because they'd rather play Pokemon? Nah. I think Pokemon is just a scapegoat. Given that Pokemon products are available at all the comic shops I visit and seem to be drawing kids in for the purpose of getting Pokemon, I'd consider those ridiculous things to be a plus for comics, not a minus. Pokemon is drawing kids to where comics are available, which is more than I can say for the comics companies themselves!
Ty Templeton says it best:
Let's look at a brief history of comics, as much as I can summarize it without it becoming an article in itself!
Comics were, for many decades, disposable reading matter aimed at a general audience. They were read mostly by kids, although comics like Superman, Batman, Captain America and others were just as popular with soldiers during wartime (many of them being high school-educated or less). You could find them at dime stores and grocery stores, and you have only to read the countless "I was going to buy candy and instead spent my dime on the captivating Superman comic" stories of fans and fans-turned-pros to know that this played a pivotal role in the success of comic books. Comics were accessible and cheap, and they weren't meant to be collectibles; the many coupons scattered throughout a typical comic make it clear that this was as disposable a purchase as a newspaper. Comics were made to be bent, folded, torn, left on the floor, stepped on and cut up. You could save them if you really liked a story, but you didn't handle them gingerly and place them in a slipcover the moment you were done with them. The comic collector industry which arose over the decades profited greatly from the fact that the vast majority (I'd give a percentage, but I'd be making it up) of comics had been mistreated, cut up, thrown in the garbage or pulped. Action Comics #1 wouldn't be worth $1000s if 95% of the comics published had been bagged with a backer board (or worse, sold in a sealed bag and never read).
I daresay that if these factors (Widely available, Aimed at a general audience, Cheap as candy and Intended to be disposable) existed today, the comics market would be thriving. As adults who've grown up with the modern market, we'd all gripe about our pet preferences but they'd be thriving. Let's consider how comics changed over the years.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, readership of superhero comics sagged. While DC's "big three" continued to be published, comics companies focused on a wide assortment of genres, including cartoon, funny animal, cowboy, romance, sci-fi, war, horror and others. Many of these titles, or at least the genres, thrived for a decade or two. Some, such as Sgt. Rock, were published until the late 1980s! However, the emphasis shifted back to superheroes in spades when some now-legendary men like Julius Schwartz, John Broome, Gardner Fox and many other "greats" launched the Silver Age with sleeker, more sci-fi oriented Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and Atom superheroes. Around the same time, artists like Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby were redefining comic book artwork. No longer was movement staid and confined to a boxlike layout; instead, the characters began to spring off the page! There are entire lectures and books devoted to this revolution in art, so I won't try to recap it in a sentence.
Notice one important point, here. The content of comic books was improving, and sales were good. But comics were still cheap, disposable, available at local stores and intended for a general audience. No one would dare say that these writers didn't possess large vocabularies and intelligent writing skills they simply aimed for the proper audience. Teens and adults COULD enjoy them but kids were never left out. All dialogue was kept at an elementary school level. Scientific concepts were explained to the reader. Editor's notes informed readers of information they may need to understand a character's past or what happened last issue. The splash page summarized the character so that new readers knew what the book was about. And there was a veritable science to the structure of a book, from the front cover to the end of the story. Editors had a list of cover elements which sold comics (gorillas, fire, motorcycles, a question posed to the reader, a main character crying, dinosaurs, the color purple, etc as Mark Waid revealed in Secret Origins #40, the all-monkey issue). There was always action on the inside page, even if it was only a splash page showing action that wouldn't occur until later in the book.
In the 1960s and 1970s, comics "matured" a bit. Enough teens were reading comics that we now come to what I earlier referred to as "step two". Comics such as Teen Titans, Brother Power, even The Flash tried to be "hip" (with varying degrees of success). Green Arrow began addressing topics such as social reform, drug abuse, civil disobedience, etc. as he and Green Lantern toured America. The "Manhunter" back-up stories in Detective Comics became a hit, recalled for years as a storytelling masterpiece. The occasional "damn" or "hell" (used sparingly but effectively) replaced such exclamations as "Holy Hannah" and this did not meet with many objections. This was also a time when comic collecting became more widespread, although collecting materials weren't readily available and the industry didn't cater to this.
The 1980s are the decade of greatest significance for our discussion, for it saw the dawn of the direct market and serious collecting and an overemphasis on same. This is also where the "third step" comics truly began (a.k.a. the comics that you had to start reading at issue #1 or you'd be lost). New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes (particularly Legion) turned into long character dramas which would develop subplots and major plotlines over the course of months or even a year or two. (As editor of Fanzing, I've tried to get into Legion for the sake of its many, many fans. But trying to follow the complex history with the Time Trapper and Glorith rewriting history over and over, the 30+ characters with names like "Rokk Krinn" I think they're all called Rokk Krinn, actually then the reboot and all the 90s names for characters I knew Me am konfused. I'm a good example of new readers who are scared away from inaccessible books!) These "third step" comics were taking comics to a new level, delivering depth, intrigue and a hell of a lot of fun in exchange for one thing: your commitment to reading it every month. For these books moved beyond the monthly introduction to all the main characters, the recaps of ongoing plots and subplots, editor's notes of when past events happened, etc. Splash pages and/or action-packed openings weren't so important, since the reader was there for the long haul and was going to read the book so who cares whether the first page draws you in or not? I don't think all of this was so much intentional as it was slowly forgotten.
Again, there's nothing intrinsically WRONG with comics of this type
long as there are still the first two steps for entry-level readers. But,
beyond Captain Carrot's cancelation in 1984, you'd be hard-pressed
to show many "first step" comics being published by DC. Granted,
there were still Archie, Richie Rich and some Disney comics.
But it's odd to see a comic company which is
As for the fading away of "second step" comics this is difficult to classify, because there's much more of a blurred line between "second step" and "third step". I think the change begins when the writer of a comic gets too "realistic" for the good of the comic. Such things as expository dialogue fall victim to the "Who talks like that?" notion, introductory texts fade away as the writer tires of introducing his characters every month in short, the writer begins making the reader do more and more work. "You're the reader if you want to know who these characters are, why didn't you buy issue #1 where we gave you the origin? If you don't understand what's going on, you should have bought last month's comic! Go to a comic shop and buy it and give us your money instead of expecting us to hold your hand every month." The only other defining characteristic between the second and third steps is an increase in vocabulary again, probably as much from a lack of consideration of such impediments to young readers as anything else.
Without a drastic difference between steps two and three, you don't really notice the shift right away. But by the late 80s, few if any of DC's main titles could be defined as "second step." John Byrne takes a lot of heat for his current work, I know, but I still consider his Superman revision to be a work of genius and when looking at it with an eye for accessibility to youngsters, it holds up to that as well. The Byrne-era Superman comics were visually easy to comprehend and rarely used words kids couldn't understand, but they were hardly "kiddie stories"; teens and adults also enjoyed them and an adult reader could appreciate them today. If someone wanted an example of what kind of books DC should be publishing to appeal to kids without being "dumbed down," Byrne's Superman comics would be my first example. But even the Superman line fell in accessability once Byrne was gone: the comics became more "serious" and serialized. (Granted, Superman and Batman still sell. Superman and Batman ALWAYS sell!)
So, an almost non-existent "first step" and a dwindling "second step" were part of the late 1980s. This, obviously, isn't the sort of thing one notices for a decade or so. It's only when the kid readers of the 1980s who should have grown into comic-reading teens in the 1990s aren't there in large numbers that we realize that the base was neglected.
The other major change of the 1980s wasn't a creative one but a publishing one: the direct market. Comic shops became a thriving industry, as retailers were able to profit from such stores even in medium-sized cities. Comics fans thrilled at the more widespread availability of back issues (these were the days when you could find old, good comics in the back issue bins, instead of just last year's surplus crossovers and events that have been overpurchased by the store). Collecting supplies (long boxes, bags, backer boards) and price guides were sold to more and more everyday shmoes, not just the professional collectors. Best of all, the comic books were each given their own display slots and weren't a manhandled mess, as they were in the regular stores. And if there wasn't a shop near you, now you could subscribe to services that would mail the comics to you in top condition.
This boom brought new opportunities. Small publishers had a place to be seen. Large publishers had a place to feature comics which wouldn't get the right attention if they were in the messy pile at the grocery store. Comic fans began making regular visits to the comic shops, which is what encouraged much of the "third step" comics dependent on regular readers. Sophisticated comics like "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight" ushered in an era of appreciation for the medium and what it could do when done right. All attention was on this shift to the sophisticated, witty, intelligent books. For a while, anyway. Prices rose, because many teens and adults with incomes were willing to pay a few quarters more for quality, and the increase made comics more of a profitable product for the retailer.
But there were problems.
First of all, the direct market's success was the death knell for collecting. Comics weren't disposable reading material anymore, and the vast majority of customers cared for their comics and put them in bags. Now a comic's price would only increase if it was an unexpected hit, or if the creator(s) became famous later or some other such surprise. The 1990s brought so much catering to collectors (polybagged, die-cut, foil-stamped, glow-in-the-dark, alternate cover, special platinum issues with the words "COLLECTOR'S ITEM" in 40 pt. raised text across the middle) that the readers finally rebelled against the abuse of their hard-earned dollars. As collectors know, the true collectible is an item that is not intended to be collectible. The marketing gimmicks may have had some noble intentions of bolstering comic collecting prices through gimmicks instead of scarcity, but the end result was annoyance at the companies' focus on superficial details over quality comics.
Pause for comedy relief: I believe it was "Bartman #1" in which comic collectors Bart Simpson and Milhouse gasp in awe at a polybagged comic sealed with an incendiary device which will destroy the comic if you try to read it. Very astute. Even more ironically, the comic has a foil cover.
To this day, the unprofitability of collecting is a blow to the industry. The only true way to make collecting profitable again is to have more readers than comics. Such a solution is, of course, a problem for the comics company. DC, Marvel and other companies don't profit from collecting, although it is in their overall best interests (given that we're more likely to buy comics if we think they'll still be worth something later). What IS profitable for the comics companies is to meet demand 100%. If there are 500,000 people wanting that special issue of Batman, DC wants to print enough copies until everyone has one and future buyers can have one too! They COULD print only 50,000 copies and watch as the bidding price SOARED in the Wizard guide, but DC doesn't see any of that cash beyond the $2 per copy price they sold it at.
Even things which are keeping the comics industry afloat are hurting the collectors' market. Trade paperbacks have their nasty aspect. On the few occasions where a book DOES become a surprise success, DC immediately releases a trade paperback collecting that comic. You can't blame DC for wanting to do that, of course. It's a great way to get more money from something you've already published, and TPB's are doing amazing business in bookstores. But much of the value in having the original comic is gone. Oh, there's some interest, sure JLA #1-4 are still worth a good amount, even though you could read the story for a fraction of the price by buying the TPB. But when DC's TPB of Kingdom Come is $5 less than the cover price of the four prestige comics AND you get two restored pages AND you get a fantastic epilogue AND you get behind the scenes notes and sketches and artwork how much can the originals be worth? Certainly not as much as if a trade paperback hadn't been released within the same year. It's gotten to the point where many readers start guessing whether a book will be a success and just wait for the trade paperback!
I think that such factors as overpurchasing and the frequent publication
of trade paperbacks of recent titles has practically killed the back issue
market. Sure, to the patron it's great to pick up books for a buck or
but basically, it's saying that all profitability for the store
is gone. I've been to comic shops which were willing to sell me a long
box of back issues
no matter what I found and put inside it
That was cool
but also sad. Comic shops don't want to be saddled with
metric tons of worthless back-issues
nor do they want the patrons to
pick up on the fact that any book they don't pay $2.50 for now will be
worth a fraction if they wait a month. Heck, you also get a plastic sleeve
at no extra charge!
Beyond the woes of collectors, there is the second major problem of the direct market: the decrease in traditional venues for comic book sales.
With so much emphasis on comic shops and so many readers flocking to them, less emphasis was placed on the dime stores and drug stores, the K-Marts and grocery stores. While Archie and Disney/Gladstone had kid-accessible comics, there were still Marvel and DC comics on the racks but little that kids would want to read. To be sure, some kids got mutant mania and bought some X-Men comics. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern were still there, but they were almost all "third step" comics. Complex storylines, adult themes, little introduction to characters, a lot of words and some tough vocabulary words these books could be enjoyed by some kids but weren't really aimed at them.
As sales of comic books dropped off, retailers began carrying fewer comic books or dropping them all together. While publishers weren't happy about it and want as many outlets as possible, there were signs that comic shops were simply taking over and the marketplace was changing.
But as we're seeing, this has been a tragic oversight. General retail stores are where kids discover comics and I'm tempted to end that with "PERIOD!" because I really can't see any other way for it to work. Kids can't drive. Kids aren't really aware of comic shops. Even if they were at the price of $2, parents aren't going to buy more than a couple comics at a time, so they're not going to intentionally take their kids to a smorgasbord like a comic shop. Mommy's busy doing important stuff like grocery shopping, buying aspirin at the drug store, getting the kids new shoes at K-Mart in time for school, picking up daddy at the airport or bus terminal and maybe indulging the kids' requests to go to the toy store if it's near a clothing store. Now, while mom's busy at the grocery store, drug store, K-Mart, terminal and toy store, the kids might encounter comic books and beg and whine and plead and whimper until mom throws it in with the rest of the purchases. That's how kids get comic books. But only if they are available at all those places!
Taken as a whole, comic shops usually aren't as inviting for kids as they could be. I think it's a safe assertion that other retail outlets are the place kids will be introduced to comics. Another safe assertion is that a lot of comic shop owners should re-think their store's appearance. (Read my "comic shop" diatribe on the next page.)
So, that's a brief history of comics as I see it. Hopefully, it's pretty
accurate. I'm going to give some opinions and suggestions as to what the
comic book industry (and DC in particular) can do to get back on track.
First, some suggestions from comics pros (and a Fanzing staffer):
A hearty "Thank You" to all the comic pros who weighed in!
We know the problems and have some idea of the solutions. Next, I'm going to spell out specific ideas for fixing the industry.
ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND AT:
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This column is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.
Fanzing is not associated with DC Comics.
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DC characters are used here in fan art and fiction in accordance with their generous "fair use" policies.
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