I hadn’t intended to write anything or even talk about anything in relation to the Robert Kirkman manifesto, Brian Michael Bendis’ overreaction, or anything related to this active conversation in comic books. No, I was going to write something silly along the lines like “You ever wonder whether super heroes follow TV shows regularly like the rest of us?” But after listening to Kirkman and Bendis on recent editions of Word Balloon and hearing the excellent, albeit a bit manic, discussion on the most recent edition of Around Comics, I’m compelled to weigh in. Damn you all for making me actually think about this industry of comic books that we all participate in and love.
I’m not going to reiterate any of Kirkman’s manifesto, nor am I here to recap or drag out more of the conversation around it. There has been a lively conversation here about it that has been fascinating reading to see what all of you think. Rather I am only here to make a feeble attempt to add to the discourse and point something out to everyone:
The Comic Book Industry sucks.
One of the main things in common the comic book industry has with the music industry, the movie/tv industry, the information industry (websites etc), and the video game industry is…they all suck for a similar reason. In our capitalistic society, we have built up industries around artistic endeavors that reel us in with our passion and our love for whatever medium, and the built a business around it, built barriers to entry and established rules, and then after 80 years, 40 years, 5 years, or whatever time period that passes, create a environment of discontent and displeasure. I’ve worked in, around, and observed the music, entertainment and technology industries and it’s all the same across the board.
This is by no means me screaming “The sky is falling!” Not at all. Rather, despite this knowledge that these industries suck and are screwed up beyond belief, I’m right there, day in and day out trying to eek a living, make a difference and have some measure of success in those industries. Why? Because I love comic books, I love the Internet, I love entertainment. I love. We all love. And because of that love, we endure what is essentially a controlling and abusive relationship.
I applaud Robert Kirkman for standing up and saying something publicly and getting the conversation rolling. I am disappointed by others dismissing his comments, chalking them up to “Oh, he’s about to turn 30…” like it’s some sort of rite of passage to get frustrated with your place in the world and it’s a phase that he will get through. It’s cheap and it’s distracting from the core issue. I don’t agree with 100% of what Kirkman said by any means. But some of what he expressed was true and worth discussing. Conversely, I think Bendis has every right to object to him being the example used by Kirkman in his interview on Word Balloon. Despite John Siuntres’ desire to provide a place for conversation about comics, in this situation he has facilitated gasoline to be thrown on the fire, focusing on the distracting issues and ignoring the core issue:
The Comic Book Industry Sucks.
We can argue as to whether or not it’s important for comic creators to do creator-owned work, or whether or not Marvel and DC should be catering more to kids or not, but we’re doing ourselves a disservice because we’re ignoring the issue. The world is changing. The manner is which we create and consume our media is changing. The music and movie industry has been going through this same issue for the past 10 years, and comics is beginning to go down this road and if you ask me, the end result is not going to be good for anyone.
Like the music industry and the movie industry, there is an established base of power and a way of doing things. Change is feared and a room full of executives are holding on for dear life to keep to their old ways. You cannot stop change and forward momentum and the results of fighting it are becoming apparent. The success of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails should be seen not only as a victory for creator rights, but an embarrassment for the establishment of the music industry. When was the last time the comic book establishment was embarrassed by the actions of creators? 16 years ago when Image Comics formed? I think it’s time for a new embarrassment in an attempt to wake people up.
Here are some things I know about the comic book industry:
Comics are not for kids by nature. When I was 13, seeing Jean Grey in basically a dominatrix outfit (whip and all) in the Dark Phoenix Saga was eye opening at 13, no matter which way you slice it. Comics are a subversive medium by nature and we should continue to embrace that. Comic books are punk rock and I don’t think they should be “aimed at” or dumbed down for kids. Rather they simply need to be exposed to kids. We are pushing the kids out because the comic book industry continues to ghetto-ize itself. How?
I don’t believe Marvel or DC Comics have evolved with the time. They have found a business model that works: The Direct Market (i.e. comic book stores) and have continued to market/target their core audience (you and me) by continuing to preach to the choir via ads in Wizard and limiting their marketing efforts to cow-towing to two websites and living in fear of managing and controlling leaks and freaking out over the Internet’s existence in general. The Direct Market and comic book retail stores, while fantastic places for you and me, have hurt the industry. They have closed off the access to comic books to the majority of people in the world. The emergence of stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble struck fear in the Direct Market and put the publishers in the awkward position of having to support the Direct Market and get their books in big box book stores without upsetting the established apple cart and in doing so, they’re failing at both.
There is a paradox of the success of the business. We’ve got movies and video games and we’re in the cultural zeitgeist. There is a segment of the comics industry is desperate to be accepted by the mainstream and it’s embarrassing. It’s like the art wing kids in high school who will do anything to be accepted by the popular kids. As opposed to the faction of the comic book industry who says, “Fuck you. I’m cool and this is what I do and you should be coming to me, not the other way around.” Efforts like Comic Book Tattoo from Image Comics are a great example of this. By creating a beautiful product that is desirable to comic book fans as well as fans of Tori Amos’ work is amazing. But that’s just one title/example in a sea of depressing repetition and the same thing month in and month out as the publishers continue the cycle of what they and think works.
And yet sales are dropping. Go over to ICv2 and look at their page of monthly sales summaries. Every headline for the analysis of sales since January 2008 is some variation of the same theme “Comics Sales are Dropping.” In this world of today, with 5 movies in the box office top 10, with the Watchmen movie and getting mainstream attention, how the hell are comic sales dropping?
And how do the comic publishers react? Well, the larger publishers like Marvel and DC Comics? They up the price. Take a look at your comics. Take a look at Previews for November. Do you see a trend? Augie DeBlieck over at ComicBookResources called it a couple of weeks back, $3.99 comics are coming. By the end of the year the majority of comics will be $3.99. It’s already happening. Why? As opposed to seeking out new audiences and increasing sales, the publishers will simply increase prices to offset the decline in sales within their existing customer base. They’re shooting themselves in the foot.
At then end of the day, this whole conversation really has nothing to do with creator-owned books and the sort. Rather more to do with the health of the industry, as my compatriot Jim discussed earlier this week. The call to arms should have nothing to do with the work. We have great work coming from both “mainstream” comics and creator owned comics. Geoff Johns is doing amazing things at DC Comics with characters he doesn’t own. Brian Michael Bendis has single handedly made Marvel a richer place with good content. There are creator owned books like The Walking Dead, Fear Agent, Scott Pilgrim and others. But despite who owns the characters or what the long-term deal looks like for the creators, it won’t matter if no one is reading and the audience doesn’t grow.
I’m baffled that after attending as many conventions as I have, and seeing literally hundreds of thousands of people walking amongst the world of comics that Fear Agent barely sells 6,000 copies, and Criminal barely sells 15,000 copies. If you ask me, THAT’S the embarrassment that the comic book industry should be reacting to. All publishers, Marvel, DC Comics, Image Comics, Dark Horse, Oni Press, Top Shelf, it doesn’t matter, all of them need to wake up and realize that to help the industry they need to change the way they market, the way they get the word out about comics and we need to realize that the landscape is changing.
I know, I’m pointing a lot of fingers here and not really suggesting solutions and that’s mainly because, like Robert Kirkman, I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is I love comics and I want to have them for my entire life to read and enjoy, and for my kids and their kids to read and enjoy. Here at iFanboy, we’re doing whatever we can to help that. I’ve done everything from suggesting comics to literally buying them for people and putting them in their hands. I know we have made a difference, albeit a small difference and I would hope that the publishers would simply make the same effort and heed this message:
Stop marketing to me. You have me. I am buying your comics. Go make someone who ISN’T buying your comics aware of your product.
The Comic Book Industry sucks. It’s nearly impossible to break in and be successful. It’s ridiculous difficult to create a hit once you are in. But there is something so strong in its connection to us that make everyone in the comic industry work their asses off to be successful. That sort of passion and dedication deserves to be successful and the publishers should be doing everything in their power to do that. For my time and my money, that’s where the change needs to come from.
So this is my call to arms to you. If the publishers aren’t going to do it then we’re going to have to. Every week, tell someone about a comic book. Show them some art. Don’t push it or force it. Simply just leave a comic book on your desk at work, or in the common area where you live or work. People will notice. It’s amazing to me that we have to take it upon ourselves to help save this industry, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.