Monday, November 7, 2011

11-07-2011 Rekindling the Old Comics Fire (or: A Digital Age Prometheus.)

Compared to past decades comic book sales are still in a slump. With recent developments such as the Barnes and Noble boycott of DC, the New 52, and Marvels restarts I’m going to take a look at the recent history of comic book sales and propose the question: Can we ever go back?

Watching the comic book sales charts has to be a nauseating job for any publisher. Observing sales figures crest and fall over the course of a year is enough to disturb the works of anyone’s inner ear. However, it wasn’t that long ago when comic were money, BIG MONEY. Beyond films and merchandizing publishers were moving books. What was the profitable trend then and what does it say about comics now?


Beyond the sales of comics in the late years of the sixties (the end of the comics Silver Age) 1993 was pure magic in the comic book publishing industry. The economy was on the upswing, coming out of a recession sparked by 1987’s Black Monday stock decline, and fresh new publishers were popping up all over the place.

First Comics may have already expired but Image Comics had been off to a strong first year. Malibu was a year away of being absorbed by Marvel and Valiant was starting to make some headway with Jim Shooter at the helm. For a while things were sailing smoothly.

At this time the industry as a whole saw sales figures estimated around 800-850 million dollars. Almost a billion in 1993 money no less. The average cost of a comic book was $2.11. To put these numbers in perspective, as of September (pre-New 52) 2011’s sales figures are at an estimated 300 million and the books average between $2.99 and $3.99.

So what the heck was so special about 1993?

Beyond the economic standpoint and general affordability another reason for such a great year is fierce competition. Each publisher wanted to have the best stories and the most amazing artists. These folks weren’t just trying to stay afloat; they were trying to BEAT each other. There was a time in the 90’s when my pull list was over thirty titles. It sounds ridiculous by today’s pricing. But at the time that was only $70 dollars. Easy to afford with just a part-time job. The reason I was reading so many was I found them to be quality publications. They were all trying to do something the others weren’t. Stories were strong, and the art was great. The creators were getting paid. In short: life was good.


“By the way, for those of you in marketing: kill yourselves.”  Bill Hicks.

So what the hell went so wrong? Well…

Remember when Gwen Stacy came back a year after her death as a super powered villain? Or when Bucky Barnes and Captain America died and they stopped the publication? Remember when Superman died and stayed dead? No?

Me either, because that’s not the way any of it happened.

When companies get bigger they either hire marketing consultants or open their own marketing departments. Theoretically, marketing works well when the client hands over a product and says “Here is my book. Please find an effective way for people to find out about it.” Easy-peasey.

Now let’s say that company is having a bad month. Sales are down and the publisher needs some new ideas. “Hey, that snazzy, well dressed marketing guy has worked on some pretty successful books. Let’s ask him.” I can promise you, PROMISE YOU, the first thing out of their smarmy little mouth will be these words, “Kill off your main character.”

As many of you know, the name for this is Shenanigans. And shenanigans don’t make good story arcs. It actually causes a quick spike in sales for the month and then they go right back down to where they were if not lower. Most readers don’t fall for it anymore and it kills long term sales. How long does it take the writer to reintroduce the character? A year? More? Well, that’s one year you’ve lost me as a reader. If I come back at all.

The 1990’s and 2000’s saw this gimmick played over and over. Superman is back and it took over a year to return him to normal. The most upsetting point was that the marketing suits were now calling the creative shots. Ever wonder why movies all seem the same and things seem to just get remade over and over? Because marketing people are comfortable promoting the familiar. If something has worked once in the past they already know how to make it work again. This is why there is nothing new under the sun. As stories and art declined sales followed. Perhaps this left publishers scrambling to ret-con everything they were too busy to see a storm rumbling on the horizon.

Golden Age to Digital Age

One of the best ways to foresee the future of any medium is to look at what market has gone through similar shake-ups. Which brings me to the music industry. When the music industry looked to the end of the tunnel and saw the end of physical mediums the only phrase to describe the reaction is: abject terror.

Without a physical object, companies couldn’t wrap their heads around what they were actually supposed to sell. Out of fear, most spent all of their time and energy fighting it. And money, lots and lots of money. They sued anyone or anything in support of this new, non-corporeal information movement (as of this writing the RIAA has admitted to backing off of many of the lawsuits.) As predicted, music production companies have slowly but surely lost the battle and sales continue to suffer. What’s worse, it’s for no reason at all.

Before I get to deep into all of that here is an interesting tangent that will hopefully prove a small point. How many vinyl records do you think were sold last year? At least one person reading this had a laugh and said “Vinyl? None!” Well the correct answer is 2.8 million. And that’s not just vintage. That’s new album sales as well. Why? Because vinyl records have become a collector’s market. And despite what we have all been told, vinyl does sound warmer, richer and just plain better than digital. Ask any audiophile. Vinyl records may be a little more expensive now but collectors are willing to pay more for quality.

In such a case as this I have little doubt comics will survive in their printed form if for no other reason than to satisfy a collector’s market. In such a world, scarcity can be a good thing. The rarer an item is the more its value increases. Comic publishers would do well to scale back their numbers and kill their overstock, going back to the first printing model and waiting a while before doing reprints. This makes the first run unique and increases the value.

Limiting copies is one thing both music and comic book companies can do to turn things around. Another? If you limit the number of physical copies you must also embrace digital formats. This is for those non-collectors who don’t want the boxes and crates in the living room. If both industries go for it, and I mean really go for it, there is even a way to justify charging MORE for digital formats. That would be offering those customers more content. There is no reason why a digital comic or album can’t have commentary tracks by the creators. They can have interviews, concept art, videos, animations or convention/tour updates. There must be uncountable ideas companies can execute to increase customer value of downloading. One can look at it as comparing DVD to Blu-Ray. People pay more for Blu-Ray quality and extras every day. Those who don’t care buy DVD or have Netflix. I think the market has shown that people are willing to pay extra if they get extra in return.

The System of Distribution and the Balance of Power.

As of October 23rd Haven Distribution will close their doors. This will leave Diamond Distribution with a near monopoly in the distribution market. As I stated earlier, competition is a prime mover of the comics business and when there is less of it things get bad for everyone quickly. This leaves a lot of independent companies with their hand in the air worrying about the high minimum orders they have to meet in order to use Diamond at all.

With all the recent hub bub Barnes and Noble and Books a Million seem to be having with DC’s new digital platforms, it wouldn’t be the worst idea for either company to consider entering the distribution game. They both already have the infrastructure set up. Not to mention it would be one of the best revenge stories in business history. But regardless of who it may be, someone desperately needs to fill the void that has been left for independent publishers.

I should make the personal comment here that I do not have any particular problem with Diamond per say. They do good work. I’m just convinced that without competition comic books in general will suffer. Competition breeds quality and that’s what people like to buy. It keeps prices down and increases service standards. How we get comics into customer hands is just as important as the quality of the books themselves.

Return of the Kings

Luckily, Lance Stahlberg, Director of Haven Distributors has already sworn a quick return to distribution. In other excellent news, Valiant Comics is poised for a return some time in 2012. The New 52 has offered a good starting off point for many of us who have been absent readers. These points, among others, do give me a sense of hope. If for no other reason it shows me they are still trying. They know just as well as you or I that things have to change. Comics tend to perform on a cyclical calendar. Just around every ten years or so there is an explosion and record sales make the headlines for a year or two. The good news is that time is approaching and not yet overdue.

Since moving on from the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages into the successful Modern Age, I think it’s safe to say we are finally leaving the Dark Age and finally, maybe even triumphantly, entering the Digital Age.