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.
So if I’m reading my calendar right, we find ourselves one year along from where we started this journey. When we began our journey I was a man without a comic shop to work in (or even buy comics in) for the first time in nearly 8 years and now here I am…well, with a file at the very shop I helped create. There were some detours along the way, but even though I’m buying comics from where I came from things have definitely changed for me. I’m not saying I’ve gone on some mystical quest to the Isle of Tortuga (although my raven locks did flow in the ocean breeze a couple times), but I think I’ve learned a bit about what it takes to be a comics consumer after selling them for as long as I did.
First and foremost, you have to be engaged. Comic books seem to be one of the only mediums where you have to maintain a certain constant level of what’s going on, even if it is only with the books that you’re reading. I think this has a such a huge generally unexamined effect on the industry, stemming for the collectible aspect of the medium. Today’s successes rely more on stories and creators than they do on how much something is going to cost in the future and that’s definitely a good thing. However it’s created a culture that’s very insular and a direct market that can be a bit puzzling to the layperson. Movies and TV shows are advertised everywhere, so it’s easy to find out about new things just by…well, existing. For those that are looking to read you can go to almost any bookstore and browse around to see what they have. Chances are you have a pretty good idea of what it is you want and there’s probably a pretty standard set-up in place to help you find it. If you know specifically what you want you can go online to find the best possible price you can and have it shipped to you.
While you can get comics in trade from an online bookseller or at some chain bookstores that’s not a full representation of what comics have to offer. Not every series ends up in a trade collection and many, even at Marvel and DC, go out of print fairly quickly. For good or for ill the industry still runs on the monthly comic and the sense of immediacy and serialization that brings. Most mainstream comic stories are about making the reader want to come back for more next month to see what’s new and in many cases those changes come pretty fast. If you’re not paying attention to what new creative team is coming on or where your favorite character is going to show up next you’re going to miss out. There’s not a lot of help for the person who just says “I want to read about Batman.” The customer must constantly keep themselves informed of changes lest they not find what they’re looking for, and that can be off-putting to those that don’t have someone to guide them through the process or the desire to invest the time and money into doing it for themselves.
The sad thing is that the comics that would appeal most to the layperson aren’t the super-hero best sellers. They’re the books that tell stories across a wide range of genres, just like prose fiction does, which can explain why comics like that do so well in trade paperback format in bookstores…that is, the bookstores that choose to stock them. And when they are stocked, it’s by a staff that may not have a strong grasp of what they’re selling (and what they are selling may all just be lumped together in one big section; horror next to science fiction next to media tie-ins and so on). These books tend not to do well in issue format in the direct market as retailers simply don’t want to take a chance on the non-returnable product. They can certainly be ordered, but to do that you have to know what you want and that means doing the legwork yourself, which can be daunting for someone who just wants some light reading.
It’s a situation unique to the comics industry. Most prose fiction is self-contained and doesn’t require and prerequisites before being picked up off of the shelf (and even books that are in a series are generally noted as such). I don’t walk into a movie theater with no idea what’s playing and expecting the usher to sell me on what’s coming out and I don’t have to watch Sportscenter every day to follow the football games I watch on Sunday. Even television, with its similar focus on episodic storytelling and general limitation of “You have to be here at this exact time to see what we’re talking about” has moved beyond that in a way to make itself more accessible to the audience. Since comics exist on such a small scale the readership has to do a lot of the work, and while that can be fun it can also be very limiting.
This was a pretty easy hurdle for me to overcome, because even though I don’t go to comic news sites every day like I used to I still get a fair amount of information from them since I’m still involved in the comics world through this site, the Super-Fly podcast and who I choose to follow on Twitter. My consumption of comic news and information may have lessened, but I still do a lot more than many folks. Would that change if I wasn’t writing and talking about comics on a regular basis? Probably not. I remember being pretty active on the comic news sites in the late 90s, early 2000s wanting to find out as much as I could. That’s all well and good but not everyone wants to do that, and we shouldn’t have such high expectations from those that are looking for some casual enjoyment from the medium.
In the intro to every column I talk about price wars, event fatigue and digital distribution. All three have been big news stories in the past year. Some publishers have made a stand by staying at a $2.99 price point, but others have begun to slowly creep up in cost. As we talked about last week, it’s not just price but frequency. Shipping schedules continue to get looser and looser as time goes by, with many publishers soliciting orders for work that they’ve just hired talent for. It’s a system that can be tricky for a publisher to fix…if they’re at all interested in fixing it. For some, late books and changing creative teams are just the cost of doing business and they remain confident that people will buy regardless of those issues.
Not much has been said about event fatigue this year but that may be because of all the events we’ve been dealing with. From Fear Itself and the positioning Marvel has done for this year’s “It’s Coming” event to the DC relaunch there hasn’t been a shortage of big goings-on. Are we still sick of them? Probably, but I have to wonder if some sort of glum acceptance has settled over the mainstream comic industry. We want to read super-hero comics so this is what we get. Maybe “event” isn’t even the right word anymore, maybe it’s “gimmick fatigue.” The deaths and returns, the wondering over who this hero is going to be and what their outfit is going to be like have begun to replace the huge crossovers for attention. After all, it’s easier to get on the cover of USA Today with a concept like “black Spider-Man” or “this guy is dead” than with “So a forgotten Norse god has been released and is looking for revenge by taking all these hammers…”
As for digital, I truly believe that the Same-Day Digital explosion of 2011 is just the start of major changes in the industry. This week say the first instance of a publisher, Dark Horse, offering their digital comics the same day their print counterparts for less money (and even less money the following month). This has already met with some strong reaction, and some shops haven even gone so far as to take their shelf copies of Dark Horse books down until the situation is resolved. I’ve talked a lot about digital this year (and even pondered who the first would be to cross the the “digital less than print” line), but I will say that at its best digital comics can bring more people into direct market shops and that many of these digital consumers will never set foot in direct market shops *no matter what direct market shops do.* They’ll buy trades from chain stores or online discounters because they’re looking for the best price or because they don’t have a (good) shop near them. We can talk until we’re blue in the face as to whether or not that’s fair and what DM shops and publishers can do to try to increase the number of customers digital comics can create for them, but there’s going to be a segment of the population that wants to read comics but wants nothing to do with the direct market. For the long term health of the industry as a whole, publishers have to explore that.
I’ve never bought any digital comics, even though the urge to do so has struck me on occasion. I’m not particularly fond of reading for pleasure on my computer monitor and I don’t have another device to do it on (well, I have an iPhone but I can’t being myself to read comics on a screen that small). Like many people I’ve been eyeballing the Kindle Fire (and some other tablets) like whoa and I have to say that if I do end up buying one one day, I’m going to have to think long and hard about what it will mean for my personal comic consumption.
I have a hard time paying the physical copy price for the digital copy of something, just because I know there’s fewer production and distribution costs involved with digital. I get a sweet deal from Super-Fly right now, so it wouldn’t really be about cost, but what about space and time (not just concepts for Doctor Who). As you can see from the photos, my comic library has grown a lot in the last year. That’s great, as I love to read, but after a while it’s going to get unwieldy. What about when I want to move? Last time I did I could only take one cargo van-load of stuff with me. While my personal belongings have grown more than without comics, as someone who’s moved with a lot of comics I know they’re going to be a pain in the ass one day. Even with that there’s organization and storage, not mention how unwieldy it can be just pull something out for a quick reread. The other side of the coin is that maybe there’s stuff I don’t really care to re-read. Maybe I just want to read it once and, if I’m really into, I’ll buy a print copy of the trade to have and lend (much like we do with TV shows and their DVD collections). If I’m concerned about anything it’s making sure that my guys at Super-Fly don’t loose any money over any decision to go digital. While sure, there’s new customers to be gained from digital the worries that print readers will migrate to digital. I know I’m never going to end my relationship with Super-Fly, but how close are other people to their shops? Super-Fly offers me more than just comics to buy and I want to support them because of that, but is that the case for other people and their shops? I just don’t know. No one does, and that’s what makes the whole situation scary.
Most importantly, I think I’ve really learned how fragile the whole comic industry is right now. Comics are better now than they’ve ever been, but we’re in such a transitional period that there are times I legitimately worry about our future. I mean, how can people be reading comics but not be picking up great books like Locke & Key, Sixth Gun, Morning Glories, Atomic Robo and so many other great non-superhero titles? I don’t know. There’s a quote I saw on twitter the other day that said “It’s not that things are getting worse, it’s just that you’ve gotten better at seeing how bad they always have been.” Maybe that’s me and the comics industry. I kind of hope so, because I’d be perfectly happy knowing things have been this tenuous before and the industry has survived.
Now that I’m firmly re-ensconced in the comic buying game it’s time to move on to the next chapter of my life. Have no fear, I’ll still be doing plenty here on Panels on Pages and you can bet I’ll have plenty to say as we watch the industry change all around us. I’d like to thank all of you for reading and ask a small favor: while it may be trying and may bring you down sometimes, stay engaged with your comic community, whether it’s here on PoP!, through the shows on the PCN or even if it’s just with your shop. It’s the only way we’re going to thrive as an industry.
And if you want to bring someone new into the fold, do it. There’s always room for one more player in this game.
Filed Under: Back in the Game