The famed ComiCon is going on right now in San Diego. A few people have commented on the fact that for a convention ostensibly dedicated to comic books, a lot more attention was being devoted to more popular media. I noticed something similar at my last anime convention, where there were more vocational college and medieval weaponry booths than there were booths that actually sold anime products. I wish I could find the link, but in response to this a guy said that people should lighten up because it just goes to show how popular comic book culture has become. I agree on the “lighten up” part, but for comic book fans, the popularity of comic book culture (namely, but not exclusively, superheroes) has to be disheartening. For all of the play that superheroes have been getting in the box office, comic book sales haven’t stopped struggling in nearly a decade.

A lot of nascent comic book collectors blame the industry’s fixation on superheroes (along with science fiction and fantasy) and suggest that there would be more popularity if it covered a wider array of subject-matter like foreign comics do. Leaving aside for a moment that American-styled comic books are a natural fit for geeky interests from an artistic standpoint, it ignores the above. If superheroes are popular, comics should be in great shape. But they aren’t. Comic book fans discuss the matter endlessly and have different ideas, but they’re coming at it from a blinkered perspective. Just like every Republican thinks that the GOP would be more popular if it would just pursue their preferred policies (and ditto for the Democrats before they won), comic book readers think that comic books would be a lot more popular if they would just produce more comic books to their liking. But sometimes you have to take a step back and realize that your preferences are your own and, as somebody on the inside looking out, you’re not the person that they need to recruit.

The problems as I see them are actually pretty straightforward. I’m a DC guy, so I’m going to focus more on DC, though a lot of these apply to Marvel, too.

First, which just about everybody can agree on, is price. Comics have been on a pretty solid upward trajectory for some time now. When I first started collecting comics, movies cost $6 and comics cost about $1.25 a piece. Now movies cost $8 and comics about $3.99. Comic books are, minute-for-minute, the most expensive media in existence. That’s not to say that they’re necessarily a bad deal. Comic books have one of the highest reconsumption values of any medium in my opinion. They’re extremely easy and pleasant to re-read. They’re easier to navigate than movies to find that scene that you’re looking for, easier than books to be able to jump right back into it with a minimum of commitment, and so on. But they’re a relatively quick read and not a cheap one.

Part of the reason for the expense is that they’re time-consuming to produce. So it’s harder to churn out more material than with books, for instance, which are less a collaborative effort and don’t require art. Of course, they’re cheaper than movies by a longshot. But movies have more ways to recoup. Comics have the original sales and trade-paper backs (collections of storylines sold in a single bound copy) and that’s about it. It’s sort of like why DVDs are often cheaper than CDs even though the latter require far less money to produce. Movies make their money in fifteen different directions and music in less than a handful.

In addition to having limited revenue streams, comic books are in a bit of a hole due to their relative unpopularity. As comic book readership has fallen, they have to increase the profit margin on each comic sold. So while some might figure that decreased demand should lead to lower prices, that’s really not the case. Having lost the elastic casual market, they’re now selling to the inelastic devoted market. Which pays the bills, more-or-less, but makes it harder to replace these people once they quit. Devoted fans became inelastic in part because they got hooked back when comics were more reasonably priced.

If it seems that I talk about the Kindle a lot for someone that doesn’t own one and doesn’t read all that much in the way of comics, a good portion of my interest in the device is the hope that once they get color they may be in a position to save the comic book industry. One of the big reasons that comics are so expensive to produce is because of the costs of the printing and the paper. Devoted fans like good paper stock, so they use good paper stock and the devoted fans are willing to pay more for it, but newer people coming in don’t care. Plus, with smaller circulations, they lose out on the economies of scale and have to pay more per-issue. By removing printing costs from the equation, which are significant, that could reduce the costs considerably.

It would also solve the distribution problem. It used to be that comics were widely available at convenience stores, drug stores, and so on. That’s far less the case now. Whether this caused or was the cause of the casual-to-devoted transition I really don’t know, but I bought my first comic in part because they were prominantly staring at me every time I went to the convenience store. One day I decided to pick one up and I was hooked. The only thing that has prevented them from losing the spontaneous buyer completely are the presence of comic books in bookstores. The Kindle wouldn’t clear that hurdle, but if someone was interested in getting a comic book they wouldn’t have to track down the nearest hobby shop (of which there are fewer and fewer around), they could just spontaneously buy one. But even with bookstores, the “spontaneous buy” is a $20 collection of comics, which makes it a non-trivial expenditure for most people.

But the biggest issue confronting the comic book industry is how much of the content is geared towards an ever-dwindling customer base at the expense of new readers. The storylines are inaccessible to a large swath of potential readers. From a devoted fan’s standpoint, they long and complex and incestuous plots are great because it becomes a sort of thing where it builds on itself to create an elaborate universe. But the casual fan doesn’t necessarily want into a big universe where it sometimes feels like you have to buy everything to understand anything. They just want to read a Batman story. Or an Iron Man one. It’s hard to know where to even begin. To date I have purchased one and only one X-Men comic book. I read it, hadn’t the slightest clue what was going on, and never bought X-Men again. Had my first Batman comic book been that way, it’s possible that I never would have become a collector to begin with.

The last issue is more DC-specific. Warner Bros sometimes seems to go out of its way to generate publicity for its comic books. DC Comics is like this red-headed stepchild that cultivates multimillion dollar properties for them but otherwise is kinda sorta an embarrassment. Back when Batman The Animated Series was showing, not an episode should have aired that didn’t mention that you could get the further adventures of Batman on a monthly (or weekly, depending on how you look at it) basis at your local comic book store or newsstand. Comic writer Chuck Dixon wrote a great piece on this a while back. Time and time again, no sale is attempted on comic books even when this person is already consuming one of DC Comics’s properties.

And sometimes maybe it’s just as well. Cause half the time the comic book that they would pick up would be like that X-Men issue I read. Something in the middle of Infinite Crisis or some huge Batman or Superman storyline. That doesn’t hold true for the animated series (which had a comic book tie-in with the same artistic style and relatively casual storylines), but when the next Flash movie comes out, someone wanting to get into the comic book is going to have to learn why the Flash they’re reading about is different from the one in the movie, how the Wally West in the comic they found from a few years ago doesn’t have a secret identity while the current one does, and so on. It’s created a whole lot of good stories, but it’s been to the long-term detriment of the industry. It has left them unable to capitalize on the film and merchandizing success of the properties they created created. And instead of taking a step back and wondering if maybe they’re getting too inside-baseball, they decide that now (during a very successful stint of Batman movies) is a good time to kill Bruce Wayne.

There’s no easy way out on a lot of this. It’s not bad business sense to be selling comic books to the people that, you know, are buying them. I don’t have any grand solutions except to say that a lot more effort needs to be made to reach out to new readers. They’ve made these efforts in the past, but they’ve been half-hearted and junked as soon as they need some Big Storyline That’s Going To Change Everything. DC Comics in particular needs to give some serious thought into streamlining or cultivating a universe that’s less continuity-oriented and more in-line with the basics that can easily be turned into movies. Something where, when a Flash movie starring (presumably) Barry Allen comes out, they can have a Flash comic book with a similar character rather than one with a long and convoluted history that’s absolutely fascinating to the devoted fan but harder for the newbie to understand. Maybe once you have them buying the beginner’s series can you say “Oh, hey, by the way, if you’re liking this, you might want to check out this wicked-cool thing we’ve got going on over here. There’s a lot more to the story than you know!” or something like that. Of course, having two Flash titles is somewhat cost-prohibitive at this point, but maybe that’s where the Kindle can come in.

Along similar lines, giving more offerings to upper-end casual customers might be a pretty good idea. There are a lot of people willing to pay $20 for a comic with some sort of assurance that they’re going to get the same sort of beginning, middle, and end that they would get if they purchased a novel. Novels are actually a pretty good reference point since a lot of popular writers do a fantastic job of both building on their characters and settings one book at a time but making it so that if you start at the third book in the series you won’t be totally lost. Easier to do with prose than pictures, but I think that it’s something that could be managed.

Unfortunately, unless some sort of Kindle Savior comes along or until they become insolvent (which is relatively unlikely due to movie properties), I think what’s most likely to happen is going to be a lot more of the same. As the industry has cratered, the problem has become worse and not better (at least on the DC end). With an ever-decreasing half-life, they go in and change everything again and again. They kill and resurrect characters. Stuff that grabs the attention of and shocks the fanbase, but keeps those outside of it more and more alienated.

Category: Theater

About the Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.