Trade Paperhack: The Long Way Down

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It’s five years later, and unfortunately things didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped.

About five years ago, I attended my first San Diego Comic-Con, and came back refreshed and energized about comics. There was so much going on back then, it felt like things were really changing. It felt like comics had turned the corner, and for a second, they seemed like they’re rumble their way back into popular consciousness, like a guy who’s been out of the loop taking the back door into a party and then ending up making a lot of friends.

But such was not the case. The superstar newcomers of the era became the regulars of today. Guys like Bendis, Rucka, and Brubaker are the gold standard for comics writing today, but it’s still the same old people reading those books. It doesn’t seem like we’ve added any audience. When this generation of comic readers stops reading, will there be anyone left? I go to a shop that is crawling with kids, and I see them oblivious to the books around them, because they’re there for the card games run at my store. On the other hand, every comic book buying customer there is a male, aged 25-35. Much like fossil fuel, I don’t understand how they can sustain this.

One interesting thing that happened was the movies. Comics got involved in some fine films based on comics properties, and while there were some half-assed efforts to make the connection for moviegoers that there were books people could read if they liked the movie, it didn’t happen. While Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man sold a ton of books, toys, DVD’s and video games, it didn’t seem to sell a lot of comics. They put some celebrity writers on stuff, but that really only appealed to the readers they already had. While I’m sure that Hellboy sold some more books for Mike Mignola, I’d be surprised if many of those people started reading regularly.

What about the way the mainstream industry does things? Well, most of the books are still superhero based. They still appeal to the same people they always did, but now, I would say, they’re a little bit better than they’ve been in 20 years. The writers are smart, and the art is good, and the production is fantastic, which is a good thing, because a comic book costs THREE DOLLARS per issue. Think about it. If you read a comic book, you’re maybe reading that issue for 10 minutes, 20 tops, and that cost you 3 dollars. Imagine if you had to pay that much for watching 20 minutes of television? I’m sure that the publishers aren’t raking in a fortune at these prices, but at the same time, it hardly seems worth it, especially to someone coming in cold. The publishers have, to their credit, gone to more trade-paperback and collection based distribution, which I think helps, but even then, the investment for a reader is even higher, and if it’s a new reader, that’s a risk.

I think I should point out that I’m not commenting on the indie field, because the indie books and publishers are what they are, and they always will be. They’re artists doing books they want to do with the realization that they’re not going to get rich from them. Some will find some fame, and probably sell the rights to make a movie, and there will always be people who love indie books, and completely eschew the mainstream. In fact, the mainstream has taken some cues creatively from the indie press, and created better books, also farming the indie ranks for talent more effectively. But that still hasn’t lead to new readers.

Then there was Free Comic Book Day. And where was it held? In comic stores! So who knew about it? People who go to comic book stores! It’s a worthy effort, but is this really the best that can be done? Isn’t there a better venue out there where actual people are?

Well, there’s the comic conventions where in San Diego, a huge amount of people come out to see stuff about the sci-fi movies, and the toys, and the other crazy stuff, and oh look, what are those books? No thank you, I don’t want any comic books.

And the saddest part is that none of this is because there isn’t worthy material. A perfect example of this is Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. I gave this book to my girlfriend, a perfect example of the non-comics reading world, and she loved it. She told me it was better than most TV, or movies. And more people would think that way if we could get it to them. But I can figure out how we’d do that for the life of me, unless you all find one, and marry them, forcing them to love and accept comics along the way. If we did that, the number of comics readers out there could potentially double. Sure it would still be way low, but it’s something.

That is the best idea I have, and that’s awful. Maybe Marvel should use some of that movie money and hire a media strategist and build their business. If they can’t do it, we might as well enjoy the ride down.