Hi, me again.
(We'll talk about Jonah Hex another day; I've got something else in mind for this one.)
Let me start with three simple words (a quote, in fact, from screenwriter William Goldman about the film industry):
Nobody knows anything.
I'm going to say it again, this time in boldface, just because.
Nobody knows anything.
Okay, now stick that in one of your parietal lobes (I don't really care which) and we'll come back to it later.
Anyone reading this probably knows that the comic book industry has gone through some dramatic changes, particularly in the last few years. Here's a partial list, from the publishers' perspective:
- dramatic/traumatic drops in circulation numbers
- rising operations/publishing costs (including creator royalties)
- contraction in the numbers of comic book stores and related outlets
- increased competition for both the consumers' money and time from outside media
And so on.
Oh, you want me to elaborate a bit? Okay.
Circulation numbers. They used to be huge. HUGE. Colossal, even. We're talking about multiple hundreds of thousands of copies going out the door for each issue. In the late 1960s, DC's 'Justice League of America' title had a paid circulation of over 300,000 copies per issue, on a press run of roughly twice that. Today, a paid circulation that's 10% of that number is considered good. Here's your economics lesson for the day: as the number of copies drops, so does your ability to amortize costs over the extent of press run. Result? Higher prices per unit and higher cover prices.
Rising operations and publishing costs. Lots of factors come into play here. Rising paper costs. Instituting royalty plans for creative talent. Having to return original art pages to artists instead of using them as 'goodwill gifts' or 'rewards' for valued business partners. Ill-considered and ultimately damaging attempts at vertical integration (Hello, Heroes World. Goodbye, Heroes World.). There are many, many other examples.
Contractions in the distribution channels. Sigh. No more spinner racks in convenience stores and newsstands (higher-priced magazines generate more revenues for the same amount of display space). Comic book store closures due to many factors, responsibility for which can be attributed variously to retailers, distributors, and publishers. Chain stores exerting their own editorial discretion as to which titles they carry.
Competition for the almighty dollar. New comic books don't cost a quarter apiece anymore. Today, they start in the $2-$3 range, and are significantly higher for books with special binding and/or paper quality (or smaller press runs; see the above note about cost amortization). Consumers who like comics also have a wide range of other media interests that are chasing after the same spending cash: music, movies (buying and rentals), video games, role-playing games, college tuition, etc.
It's not a pretty picture, is it? Right - if you could translate the situation into a painting, it would look like something that Rex The Wonder Dog might come up with in a class on abstract art. No clear direction and no easy answers.
A lot of people talk about restoring the glory of the industry by trying to find ways to reverse the trends of the past, to recapture the audience segments that have been lost along the way. "Get the comics back into the grocery store checkout lanes," they cry, "where parents can see them!" Many also blame sticker shock for the woes of the industry, and maintain with some kind of 'Field of Dreams' fervour that, "If you cut the prices, they will come."
Personally, I think that trying to reverse decades-old trends is a fool's errand. Would I like to see a constant supply of 25-cent books in my local 7-11 store? Sure, absolutely. I'd also like to see all of the bulk emailers of the world suddenly subscribe to responsible business ethics and cease their activities, but that's not going to happen either.
But let's go with this for a minute. If you want to get parents buying comics for their kids again, you need three primary factors intersecting: (1) the comics needs to be placed where the parents do business already, (2) the content of the books must be kid-friendly (à la the Comics Code Authority), and (3) the comics must seem like good value for the money. You tell me whether the industry has been moving towards or away from those factors.
So what's been happening instead? Decades-long decline in circulation, rising prices, speculator boom-and-bust during the mid-eighties, leading to a roughly stable plateau in readership. I haven't seen figures on this, but intuitively (based primarily on observation) I'd say that today's comic readership is mostly in the late teens though twenties demographic. They are now the status quo, forming the core audience for publishers. The challenge for DC, Marvel, CrossGen, and others now is to figure out where to go in an industry that bears little resemblance to what it used to be.
I think DC has been the most prescient of the publishers on this front, having spent the last fifteen years or so establishing thematic imprints (e.g., Vertigo and Helix) and building up the collection side of their publishing line with the Archive Editions and trade paperback programs. That's led to an increasing presence in bookstores and libraries, in addition to giving their works a significantly longer life cycle (compared to the transitory, in-one-month, out-the-next nature of comic books). This has also led to a shift towards longer story arcs that might be better suited for eventual collection.
CrossGen has been actively experimenting with their content packaging, coming up with a variety of models for collecting comic stories in trade paperback form, juggling both what gets collected and the size/page counts of the books themselves. CrossGen is also testing the waters of digital distribution with their Comics-on-the-Web initiative.
Marvel has recently begun to follow DC's lead by aggressively expanding the scope of their collected editions line. Marvel also seems to be trying new forms of promotion (e.g., 'outing' the Rawhide Kid) to get outside media attention, presumably based on the idea that any media attention can only have a net positive impact. Marvel executives have also toyed with the wrestling world's approach to communications as a way of building customer loyalty and creating industry buzz; given the seeming move away from these tactics in recent months, it appears that that particular approach (anti-social and aggressive) wasn't producing the results they were looking for.
All of which leads us back to the Bill Goldman quote that I kicked this party off with:
Nobody knows anything.
The publishers are individually and collectively (e.g., Free Comic Book Day) trying to find ways to make the industry more robust, and that's going to require a lot of experimentation. Some of the ideas are going to work out well, some won't. A few of ideas will likely succeed spectacularly, and, yeah, one or two could well tank in so thoroughly a manner possible that they'll make the Spider-Man clone saga actually seem like a comparatively good idea.
So the next time a publisher does something that seems a bit out of step, or whose logic isn't immediately clear, just remember that they're trying something new and that the goal is a worthy one. While the rationale may not be immediately obvious, take it on faith that people on the level of Levitz, Jemas, Alessi and their peers aren't making decisions capriciously, and that they do have a measure of justification to rely on.
And let them know what you think, in clear, rational terms. After all, you're the consumers, and you're part of the equation too.
(Plug: William Goldman wrote the screenplays for All The President's Men, The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and Maverick. You should rent them. His books are pretty good too.)