I’m Thacher E. Cleveland, one of the Super-Fly Comics podcast hosts and until the end of November I was one of the two owners of Super-Fly Comics & Games. After a lot of soul-searching I decided it was time to hang up my Comic Guy license and move on to new adventures. Not only do I have a new job in a new city but I’ll be buying comics again for first time in almost 7 years instead of just reading whatever I want, whenever I want. With the comic industry at a turning point with price wars, “event fatigue” and digital distribution, I’ve picked a hell of a time to get…Back in the Game.
Last week I spent a fair amount of time talking about things that shops and customers can do to make the practice of buying comics easier. Kind of a weird idea, isn’t it? We have such an intricate and unique system to purchase books in this medium that there’s steps we have to go to make it easier. Is it any wonder that readership is close to all-time lows?
There have been plenty of times where people have roamed the streets declaring doom for the comic industry. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I do know that we are in the midst of a transformative period in comic history. We’re in a state where comic properties are incredibly sought after for films and television but actual comic readership is far lower than that kind of buzz from Hollywood would indicate. Even the highest selling comics haven’t been cracking the 100,000 copy mark in the later half of 2010.
In order to try to get us back to those heights publishers will do everything they can to get their books noticed. While big Hollywood movies tend to keep mainstream superhero brands in the public eye, for the most part the perception of comic books is that it’s superheroes or nothing. There have been some comic book movies that, despite their box office numbers, have given a great boost to the sales of their original material (like Scott Pilgrim, Watchmen and Sin City), but for the most part those sales bumps stay pretty well confined to those series or authors and that’s it.
This past week Marvel made “big doins” about killing a member of the Fantastic Four. I’m sure you’ve already heard, but if for some reason you don’t know then I won’t let the cat out of the bag (in this case, a black plastic polybag that the issue in question shipped in). Within the first month of the new “day-early” release schedule from Diamond comics we had out first big, mainstream news push for a comic book. That it was a character death shouldn’t shock anybody: those are pushed and pushed hard, despite the fact that most folks who know a lick about comics know that death is hardly ever permanent. Ever since Superman was beaten to death, comic publishers know that this is a great way to get on CNN and in newspapers and maybe get some folks that haven’t been buying comics into the stores and get those sales numbers up.
In my opinion, there was a lot that went wrong with the handling of the Fantastic Four death. Such a big deal was made over the death that the book was shipped polybagged, ostensibly so that no one could just flip through it on the stands and see who was killed. Since we’re still relatively new to this whole day-early delivery schedule, Marvel decided that it would allow shops to sell that book the day that they got it, obviously trying to cut down on the time between the book arrived in stores and the time that word got out to the general readership. While I can understand that impulse, it would’ve been nice to have seen if the secret would’ve been able to hold, especially since Diamond has gone to such lengths as hire secret shoppers to patrol stores and make sure retailers aren’t selling books Tuesday evenings.
Of course, that all was moot because by the time Monday morning rolled around the story was out in various major news markets about who was getting killed. The polybag suddenly became more of a gimmick than a security measure (and given that the information came from Marvel themselves, was it really ever anything but?). Perhaps the most troubling was that, since this news was trumpeted with the intent of bringing new or lapsed readers to the title, the issue itself was anything but accessible to someone who hasn’t been following Jonathan Hickman’s steller run on the series. That’s not to say the book wasn’t well done (it was), but it had the members of the team split into three different groups on three separate missions, almost all of which referenced stories that had taken place over the last couple of years. This wasn’t a stand alone title for someone to pick up and go “Oh man, this is great” but one that folks should’ve been reading with an FF-buddy or Wikipedia close at hand.
I can understand and appreciate Marvel’s excitement for the book. It’s good, and from what I can see of the sales numbers far fewer people are reading it than I think they should. The thing is…superhero comics aren’t going to save the comic industry, and if one is it certainly isn’t going to be a 50 to 75 year old title, character or brand that does it. While those are the characters and stories that the current comic book readership wants to read about, they aren’t the best fit for most lay people. There’s a reason books like Scott Pilgrim and Watchmen did so well when their movies came out and it’s because they have something that Marvel & DC’s superhero titles will never have – a beginning middle and end.
That’s not a condemnation of superhero books by any means, I like the giant shared worlds and stories and I like seeing the growth that those characters are allowed to have, but that’s a love that’s usually cultivated throughout your childhood and grows from there. It’s rare that someone becomes a superhero fan later on in life (yes, I know it happens, but when you look at the age of the average comic buyer and how long they have been buying comics those folks tend to be the exceptions to the rule). If we want to catch the folks out there that are reading for pleasure already (a group that’s also dwindling), then we need to provide something else for them to sink their teeth into.
This past week, Steve Niles and Eric Powell both made appeals to the comic readership about supporting individual creator-owned projects. While we are at a point in comic publishing where there are so many more diverse genres of stories being told, those books are often at the bottom of the sales charts and in many cases don’t make enough money for the creative teams involved to live off of or produce more work (unless of course the series hits the “Hollywood jackpot”). What Niles and Powell are asking us to do is vote with our dollars and support the books that, if the corporate owners of Marvel and DC decide that comic publishing isn’t profitable anymore, will be the only books left on the shelves. The only problem is that those books sell in such few numbers that almost no direct market comic shop will be able to keep their doors open. What is already a niche market will become an infinitesimal one. Where will the medium go from there?
That’s not a question that I want to see answered. So where does that leave us right now? I think what it means is that they want us to buy more comics. Huh. I know what you’re thinking, I’m thinking it to: I already buy a crap ton of comics, they’re getting more expensive and I’m not making any more money. What the hell you two? While that may be a part of what we, the reader, can do to keep the comic industry afloat, we can do more than “just” that. If you’re already reading a title that you think a non-comics reader might enjoy suggest it or loan it to them. You’re already reading this on-line, so clearly you’re internet savvy – get on a message board (like the PoP boards, for example) and tell folks about what you’re reading. If you see a news article or preview for a creator owned book that piques your fancy, track it down and check it out. If it looks like something you’d want to buy, tell your retailer about it. As I’ve said in columns past, and this just re-enforces it: your pull list can help save a series and perhaps the whole industry.
The thing is these creator owned projects are so much more likely to bring in a new wave of readers by being fresh, original and, in most cases, finite stories in the way that every other storytelling medium uses. Whether it’s a single graphic novel collection or a series of trade paperbacks, the more of those types of stories that are out there for a new or casual reader to find, the more will be bought and the greater chance we have of seeing sales numbers begin to creep back up across the board. Hell, they might even start buying super-hero comics.
It’s going to take more than creators being passionate about a product to raise the industry as a whole, it’s going to take you, the reader, being active and thoughtful in your buying choices to make a difference. There are hundreds of passionate creators out there that want to put entertainment in your hands, and the least we can do is make sure there’s still an industry around for them to work and make a living in.