Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Comics Economics

The market principles behind the comics trade are endlessly fascinating to me. Think about it… comics used to sell tens of millions of copies each month. But, due to a variety of factors, they’ve migrated out of convenient stores and into novelty shops, transforming what was once a widely consumed form of mass media into a niche market. Comic books still contain some of the most recognized fictional characters in history, and yet the medium survives by selling to an insular group of collectors. Seriously… how the hell does that happen?

Devon and I had a chat the other night about the death of the Martian Manhunter and why it needed to happen. No one in DC can seem to get his or her mind around what to do with a character like that. He seems so rooted in the era of his creation. Same with Aquaman. No one can seem to find a good use for these characters, despite the fact that they remain fan favorites. We saw good uses of these characters in JLU, but the comics have just flopped in recent memory.

Other characters seem less affected in this way. I guess the market imperative of keeping Superman and Batman up-to-date is greater than for Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. Or is it? Aquaman is among the most recognized properties in the business. Hell, the show Entourage spends a lot of its extremely limited plot development on an Aquaman movie, and that show’s target demographic has an average IQ of somewhere in the 60s.

Now, I’m not saying this because I have great affection for Aquaman. But as a fan of super-hero comics, I think the publishers have to do more to protect their prized properties and put them front and center. It makes good business sense. I know a lot of people complain about Quesada and Didio for a wide variety of reasons, and I have tended to dismiss a lot of those criticisms as fanboy entitlement. But I think their greatest weakness is that they’re not business minded. Sure, they can manufacture hype with the best of them. But hype is not a strategy. Hype is not a long-term tactic for new market penetration and market development. Hype is fleeting, and hype only works so many times, even with loyal comic book geeks.

When I read comics, I want good art and good stories. But when I look at my pull list each week and each month, I also want to get the sense that there’s a clear understanding that comics are both a consumable and a collectible, not just a commodity to pile up in long boxes. I want to know that there’s a drive to push the creative envelope, re-invent concepts, and introduce new ones that might drive growth instead of just slow contraction.

Why aren’t the big two trying out recognizable properties as web-comics? Sure, we like to collect issues and trades, but increasing cover prices are driving even loyal collectors to downloading and piracy. This might be a good tactic to try out with comics that are acclaimed by readers and bloggers but have lackluster sales.

I’m not saying some of these ideas don’t have pitfalls. ‘Trying new concepts’ has bombed in the past, and I’m sure there’s one big distributer and more than a few retailers out there who are dreading the day mainstream comics start to pop up online. And just because a recognizable property is put front and center by a publisher doesn’t mean it will be well received (see: Justice League of America). But I’m tired of living in the past. I love sequential art, but the economic prospects for its survival are grim. It’s been great that the big two have taken us back in time over the past decade. Hell, we needed it after the 90’s. But we need this medium to grow and change. We need it to reach out and join the 21st century, or it will die.

In short, the best thing for the big two might be to put folks in charge who aren’t fanboys. And, as readers, we have to be willing to change with the times. We have to be willing to invite changes that might seem painful at the time. Imagine if the entire Ultimate line of comics had always been exclusively available online. Imagine if DC kept Catwoman going as a web-comic. Imagine if Mark Waid or a similar talent wrote Aquaman and tapped into the current zeitgeist of protecting our planet and preventing environmental catastrophe. Do any of these ideas sound perfect? Hell no. But I would applaud the vision. I would respect the effort, and I would understand that the medium was trying to survive. And I think I could get down with that.


Devon Sanders said...

Damned good post, Mike!

Like I said the other night, the best bosses I ever worked for put quality and services above all else. These were the men and women who built up loyalty and didn't take it for granted month in, month out.

I love Didio, Levitz and I've found a newfound respect for Quesada over the years but I can't help but wonder what would happen if someone with new, fresh eyes walked into the big two and said, "Let's go big" and did cool things like put the late, lamented DC Digest back onto the "impulse buy" racks in the local supermarket.

That's where I found my first comic, after all and thirty-some years later, I'm still here.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Marvel and DC are enough making money, I think, that they aren't going to innovate much in distribution. They don't have to. Yes, the DM is shrinking, but it still provides them with a goodly pile of cash. Any major change in approach will be expensive and risky.

That's not to say they aren't kinda-sorta trying. Both Marvel and DC are pushing outwards, just not with comics as we know 'em. Marvel's re-establishing a newsstand presence with "Spider-Man Magazine" and one or two others, as a kinda "Shonen Jump" style publication. They've also set up an online library of non-negligible size. "Marvel Online" is crap for many reasons, that I will rant about at great length to anyone who asks, but it's a baby step in the right direction.

Larger changes in distribution models would take big risks and big money. Since large changes aren't necessary right this second, it'd tough to persuade any businessman to put his company's limited capital into such moves.

I have the sneaking suspicion that Marvel and DC's future plans are to be simply intellectual property franchises. The publishing wing is worth keeping alive for the profits, talent development, and R&D, but hey...if it dies, it dies. If the publishing wings can figure out a way to thrive without spending a lot of extra money, good for them. If not, well, it's been swell.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this.

Slave Labor Graphics has a pretty sweet online setup. I bought the full run of "Rex Libris" in PDF format for cheap. Anybody know if it's working out for them?