Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On the public getting what it wants, and the industry getting what it deserves

Eric Powell, creator of The Goon (not to mention a Conspirator) recently posted a very funny video about the need for "diversity" in comics.  I naturally assumed he was referring to the PC concept of more women, more gay characters, etc, but no; he was talking about more types of comics - westerns, SciFi, etc.  I include the video here for your perusal:

UPDATE - Alas, due to many negative reactions to said video, Eric has removed it from the YouTube, faster even than anyone could grab a copy and re-post it.

Harsh terms indeed.

Now I grasp satire perfectly, and I'm not going to go off on a rant about any of his comments, as they're all valid to varying degrees.  Eric's worked for DC (his Bizarro World run was a delight) so I assume he doesn't have any Mooreian hatred for the Big Two. 

The point he makes is quite correct - comics in America is largely made up of Superhero books published by two compaines.  I don't agree with his choice of the term "monopoly", as that suggests positive action against other companies, and potential illegal activity.  They definitely have the market controlled, but not (IMHO) out of actively nefarious practices, just standard (take that as you will) competition.

I've written before about how hard it is to get a new book off the ground today, even from one of the Big Two.  Right now we've gotten the market to the point where the only people in it are people who like superhero comics, and trying to sell something new and different (even if it's not very much of either) to that audience is a sisyphean task.  That's more because of inaction than action.

The comics market has dwindled steadily in this country over the past 70 years, for a number of reasons:

F#*$ing Wertham - The Comics Code may have finally gone the way of all flesh, but its effect may never be erased.  Since the fifties, comic books have been seen as a) primarily children's entertainment b) bad for you.  Comics were the first of the many Reasons Your Kids Are Acting Up the popular media has tried to sell to the parents of America to explain why their beloved darlings started to act up when they hit their teenage years, as opposed to the perfect little angels they were as kids.  Wertham was the first pop psychologist - he understood the "new media", a term that has found new use today, but has ever been around, just referring to different media.  People in those days trusted figures of authority - he had a suit, and diploma and an accent, surely what he said was right.  Nowadays, not a single expert goes unchallenged; this is usually a good thing, but we may be reaching the other end of the pendulum-swing, to a land where ALL theories are valid, or at least deserving of a fair hearing. 

Many more explanations for your kids' misbehavior have been presented over the years; rock and roll, television, reefers, video games... lather, rinse, repeat.  But none was as decimated as comics.  Thanks to Wertham, the movie trope of "a comic book in a grown-up's hand means he's an illiterate cretin" has survived until today. And it took several billion dollars of ticket sales before even a dent was put in the standard practice of starting a comics-related news story with Batmanny sound effects.

In almost every other country, comics are as respected and popular a medium as any other.  I've ever mentioned the fact that there are comics (magna, whatever) in Japan dedicated to Mah-Johnng.  This is largley because adults read comics, openly and great numbers in those other countries.  The market exists, so the books are written to appeal to that market. 

The Direct Market - By the time the 80's rolled around, comics sales were dropping, but ironically, because of LOW prices.  Drugstores and candy shops, traditional homes of comics purchases, were not seeing enough profits from comics.  A slick magazine which sold for two or three times of a comics was much more alluring a product.  That's why the "Dollar Comics" were created back in the day, to provide a more profitable item for the newsstands.

The newsstand market was drying up, and the Direct Market was created to effectively save the industry.  Comics were sold directly to comic shops, bypassing the newsstand distributors.  It worked, and everybody made money.  But the downsides were numerous, the most obvious being it turned comics from an impulse purchase to a destination purchase.  The potential market shrank precipitously.  Since you had to go to a special place to buy comics, pretty much the only people who went there were already buying.  Unless a store could afford a prime location with lots of walk-by traffic like a mall or at least a major shopping high street, they were limited to "pre-sold" customers.

Isolationist Comic Shops - Sadly, for a whole lot of comic stores, that suits them fine.  There's still a lot of stores run by people who opened them to find a place to house their collections, and if they only had to deal with their fellow fans who knew what they were talking about and didn't bother them with dumb questions, that'd be great.  There's one store in my area that actively looks down their nose at non-fans, and another who, even though they have a mall location, chooses not to participate in Free Comic Book Day because they see it as a waste of money.  These are the stores have no desire to find the legendary "new readers".  They charge outrageous fees to the walk-ins for the hot Death issue that made the papers, and breathe a sigh of relief when they don't return.

Things That Are Newfangled - We'll never again see a TV show that earns anything above a 30 rating.  With hundreds of channels to choose from, not to mention DVDs, the electric-type Internet and endless other distractions, the viewership is so diluted it borders on impossible to attract the audiences of only a few decades ago.  The same holds true of comics.  With so many things to appeal to people, especially teens, getting them to try ANY comic, let alone a non-superhero one is quite a trick.  It's not impossible.  The young adult book industry was almost non-existent until a single mother from Britain wrote a book about a Boy Who Lived. 

We Do It One Way - What Eric seems to say is the biggest problem with comics today is IMHO the least important of the issues.  Right now, the "regular readers" comics market is made up of about 100,000 people, tops.  And largely, they like superhero comics.  So that's what the publishers supply.  If you want to compare DC and Marvel to Coke and Pepsi, it's not their responsibility to convince people to drink orange juice.

I've already alluded to how hard it is to get a new book off the ground.  That's largely due to the reasons I've mentioned, not because of any active desire to keep non-super-books off the shelves.  It's the eternal chicken/egg scenario - new types of comics will only flourish if there is a larger potential market, and the market will only expand if there are more types of books.  And with only a fraction of store all that interested in even GETTING new readers, the onus falls on the larger stores, mainstream bookstores and the up and coming digital market.  In short, the companies that are more often than not accused of "ruining" the industry.

The solution is not try to sell more and different books to the current market.  The secret is enlarging the market.  To light a candle as opposed to cursing the darkness.

How do we do that? Buggered if I know.

We may have gone too far.  The industry has drawn itself into a corner, and may not have time to wait for the ink to dry.  It may well end up that the lion's share of profits from a comic are from the film rights, and the comics become just ways to keep the character in the eyeline of the public, or at least the ones who know where the comic shops are.

But then you see the crowds at San Diego of the New York Comic Con, and you figure, "Surely there must be someone still buying these things". 

Like Eric, I don't have any answers either.  I just have different questions.  But the end result is the same - comics are a respected and beloved (and popular) medium and art form all over the rest of the world, and until it can become the same here, you better get to like multi-month crossovers.

1 comment:

  1. The issue of diversity in comics is an old problem and emerged in the early 70's at the first large comic conventions. From my perspective there were a lot of "comics" which were dominated by the super hero characters, and "cartoons" which were funny and featured both animal and human characters. Further there were "comic strips" which were dominated by humor, and some had crossover versions as comic books. I was a cartoonist and comic strip artist, which meant I wrote, and illustrated my strips--writing, drawing, penciling, inking, lettering, and coloring.

    I often feel left out as do other cartoonist in the humor genre at these conventions, but enjoy attending because a lot of my fans are also there and it it's fun to make drawings for them and discuss my characters and strips. And sometimes chiding the super hero guys asking them if they are an inker or penciler, and asking the writers to make a sketch.

    Yes, the super heroes have remained dominate within the comic convention context, and movies, but the humorous cartoons have had equal success if not more in Hollywood movies.

    Last, the issue of print verses online has emerged with online comics and cartoons representing the future direction and the primary form of immediate publishing and readership. Online, there is a lot of diversity--the only remaining issue is can online comics begin to focus and present clear, entertaining destinations for comics readers (cartoons, comic strips and even superheroes).

    I am working on the online issues of distribution and marketing and may have some news to report in the near future.

    Ted Richards