Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On the end of Flashpoint, and the start of a New Universe

Right, well THAT'S over.

Flashpoint has brought the DCU that I grew up with, the one that all of my childhood memories are connected to, have been brought to an end.  The various books tried to bring their stories to a nice coda, and all told they did a good job.

Flashpoint #5 brought this latest event to an end, and started off the new DC Universe.  While it took place in a world greatly unlike our own, it was ultimately a story of two men, Barry Allen and Thomas Wayne.

Interesting bookend - at two times in his life, Barry causes chaos by attacking the Reverse-Flash in the timestream.  Once by "killing" him in the original run of his book, and now by trying to undo the massive changes Thawne had  made to time.

I don't like the idea that Barry doesn't get his parents back. From the moment that was changed in Flash: Rebirth, I didn't care for it.  Barry Allen was always the character in the DCU having the most fun.  He was married, had a nice set of parents, and an addlepated father-in-law.  Of all the heroes, he was the one most likely to be smiling.  But the events of rebirth had him saddled with a horrific history - now his Mom was killed, presumably by his father, who was taken to jail for it.  What a change!  But once it was revealed, gloatingly, that the Reverse-Flash was responsible for it, it was almost unfair that it couldn't be undone.

Perhaps the info in Flash #1 will prove me mistaken, but the end of FP #5 has me thinking his parents are still dead, he knows that Thawne is responsible for their death, he remembers his history of the alternate timeline, but might not recall that Thawne is dead. Not as satisfying an ending for him as I'd like.You could argue that Thawne won, dead or no.  And he's a time traveler; there's really nothing stopping him from coming back.

The tie-in books were as advertised - they were entirely ancillary, and did not have to be read at all to further the plot of the main book.  While they were all interesting, I can't say I agreed with the choices of who got books and  who didn't.  I'd have happily traded Legion Of Doom for, say, a S!H!A!Z!A!M! mini.  The two I enjoyed the most were Project: Superman and The Outsider.  I would not mind seeing either The Outsider or Project Zero make their way to the DCnU.

My biggest disappointment of the tie-ins was Booster Gold, not because of any failings in the story, but for what I presumed / hoped his role would be.  Being as they went to such lengths to point out that his was the only regular title crossing into Flashpoint, I took that to mean he'd play more of a role in the proceedings.  But ultimately, he faced Doomsday (again - that is a character that has absolutely been overused, and one I will not miss.), tapped into Flash's Speed Force, and went home. Didn't get to fix anything, didn't even get to save the girl.

Oh yes...the girl.  Alexandra had parasite-like powers, and at the moment before she, oh let's say "Died", Booster was trying to travel through time. And then a mysterious figure wrote the words on Rip's blackboard, and at the tie same time a mysterious hooded figure helps guide Barry to the right path to fixing things as near as can be.

Connection?  Who the hell knows?

The mysterious hooded lady is clearly the beginnings of another over-arc.  Not an event, per se - Dan Didio has sworn blind we won't get one of those for some time. But she's already been sighted in preview copies of other first issues, so she certainly seems to have a role to play.

Justice League #1 looked very promising, and was a very nice start to the new Universe.  It had a couple clunkers ("He combusted into fire"...peewwww) but it did a good job of giving the feel of how things now are. 

There's not a single title I don't want to give a fair look, there's several I'm quite keen on, and a few I'm right chuffed about. 

There's still a LOT of questions I have about the timeline of the DCnU.  With only five or so years of history in place, there's simply no time for ALL the events we've read about to have happened, either in whole or in part.  The lesser event books alone are likely all gone - I will not be sad to see Armageddon 2001 to go out the door, and Amazons Attack...please. 

I may try to go into more detail about these questions over the next week, but let's just ask about a few tentpoles here...

Who's died? The events of Batman RIP have likely occurred, as they funneled directly into Batman Inc, which is firmly underway as this new world starts up before us.  But was it still at the hands of Darkseid?  Did Final Crisis happen as we read it, if at all? 

Superman?  Did he die at the hands of Doomsday and come back?  We know Superboy's origin is all new now; Is Steel in the DCnU, or just some iteration of John henry Irons? 

Or what about Hal Jordan?  Geoff Johns did a great job or winnowing away the effects of Emerald Twilight from Hal's life - maybe this is the chance to wipe it away entirely?  If Superman didn't die, did Hank Henshaw destroy Coast City?  Hal could still have been possessed by Parallax and gone on a bit of a tear, but could have been stopped before he died.  We know Kyle Rayner has a ring in the new continuity, but who's to say he got it the same way, as a result of the same exact tragedy?

Let's go back to the first big one - with only one Flash in current continuity (that we know of - they're being deucedly cagey about Wally), did he ever die?  Did Crisis ever happen?  If not, Flash may never have died, which means that even more of the events of Final Crisis are under flux.

A lot of questions.  In full fairness, not all require an answer to permit enjoyment of the new books, but when people have upwards of 70 years of continuity in their heads, it's a fair question to ask how much of it will be of value in the future, as opposed to just being useful in talking about the past.

Which I expect I'll do a lot.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On the latest threat to the survival of the Comics Industry. Not.

The folks at Newsarama posted an article today with the provocative title, "Will digital comics KILL Comic stores?"

This is a question that had gotten a lot of talk over the last few weeks, since both DC and Marvel have announced that their books (Some of Marvel's, all of DCs) would go digital on the same day as print.  And after some thought, and some actual research, I am prepared to give my answer.

No. next question.

The only thing that will kill the comic store is the dwindling number of comic readers.  Explain to me how adding new customers will cause an industry to diminish.

You can't buy trade paperbacks digitally. Nor T-shirts, nor action figures or any of the other things you can buy at a comic shop, save for the monthly books themselves.

Bob Wayne had it exactly right - if a store is experiencing diminished sales as a result of either the lame duck session until September, or due to the New 52, they're not doing ther jobs right as a retail outlet.  The same holds tru for digital.

The savvy store will embrace digital, link up with the comixology site, offer special discounts and deals on items for digital customers, and very possibly do better than ever.  The short-sighted store will curse the darkness, shake its fist, get caught up on all those issues that have been piling up, and wait for the next death issue to get spoiled in USA Today a day early so they can jack up the prices on the book for the first-timers who come in to get one.

Record stores, at least the ones that went away, only had one product. Records stores now sell records (Yes, I still call them records; shut up, I'm old), movies on DVD, videogames, interesting coffee-table books about said records and movies, t-shirts, and...whaddaya know...comic books.  Plus, they're in places that are accessible to the walk-by trade, and have attractive window displays, and sales, and in short, actively COURT customers.

And in honesty, this is all a moot point until the prices drop.

Paying the same price for a physical object you can hold, put on a shelf and use to keep your beer from making a ring on the coffee table, and for a digital copy, one that can barely be said to exist at all save for your memory of being enraged at some plot point or another after reading it, is sheer lunacy.  It is a pure cash grab, eliminating both the cost of physically printing the book, and an entire level of the sales process. 

A $1.99 comic book is profitable; it must be, because DC already plans to drop the prices on their titles by that dollar six weeks after the street date.  So functionally, if you want your digital titles on the day of release, you're being penalized a dollar.  But even at that "discounted" price, DC is making FAR more on a digital title that a physical one. 

Under confidence, a local comic shop confirmed that they get a 56% discount on DC titles, which means that for a $2.99 DC book, they're paying $1.31.  As I assured him when he told me this, I have no problem with this.  The monthly books are their biggest seller, they have to pay for most of the rest of the stock and the monthly nut of the store, so a good profit margin is perfectly reasonable.
But it still means that Diamond is getting $1.31 per title. (Yes, other stores may have different discounts, but it's a solid, verified number and one we can use as a base of discussion.)  It is not unreasonable to assume that Diamond's profit margin on said books is near to this.  If we assume that Diamond's profit margin is HALF of that, or 28%, they're paying 94 cents a book to DC.  If it's 50% (not impossible), they're paying 66 cents a copy.

So this means that at somewhere between 94 and 66 cents a copy, a DC title is profitable, presuming a sufficient number of them are sold.

So let's look at the cost of printing the book.  Now, the further up the chain this goes, the less hard data we have on prices, so we're making reasonable guesses.  One comic book printing company online advertises a price of $9,730 for a 32-page comic book, slightly less than 50 cents a copy, on a print run of 20,000, the level commonly considered to be the line of demarcation for cancellation.  Now DC has does a LOT of printing, and many larger print runs than that, so it's not unreasonable to assume they're paying easily half that, possibly less.  So let's stay cautious and say it's 25 cents to print a DC title.  take that off the top, and we have anywhere from 41 to 69 cents a copy of a $2.99 comic book that DC is pulling in. That's enough, presuming the book sells well enough, to cover payments to the creators, editors, art staff, etc, and still make the company money.

I refuse to believe the 99-cent comic book isn't possible, especially if it sells well.  Because again, the best and safest way to make money is not to charge a lot of money to a small group of people, but to charge a small amount of money to a LOT of people.  This is made even easier when you don't actually have to make anything.  Once the cost of creating the book is done, expenses cease, save for the cost of creating and keeping current the website that you're selling the comics from, a relatively small amount, amoritzed over the time the site is in use.

What DC (and Marvel, I know) is trying to do right now is charge a lot of money to a lot of people, and that doesn't go over well.

Digital comics will not, in the long run, be profitable via a higher profit margin, but by the increased sales that a larger potential readership provides.  Make the books good, make them cheap, and make nigh-effortless to obtain.  1 and 3 are handled.

Get to 2.

There's another facet to digital comics, as they're being sold now, that I still have a problem with, that of portability.  They've made strides - I can read digital comics from Comixology from my phone, PC, iDevice, and even my PSP.  That's good, but it's not 100% good. They're still tied to the internet, and cannot (to the best my knowledge) be backed up to a cd or other media and archived, nor can they be read from such media.  Bit-torrent files are perfectly portable - they can be tossed onto a CD and saved, and there's nary a device that doesn't have a CBR reader for it.  That's not an argument for torrenting, it's to show the target that digital comics must strive for. An iDevice has a limited storage space, they don't have SD cards or other hot-swappable media - if I want to swap out books, it's a time-consuming process, and, I hasten to add, there's no way for me to read the files on anything but the iDevice. I can't take the files and view them through iTunes or any other local reader. 

Marvel's original digital offering, only a few short years ago, now seems almost archaic.  They offered the ability to read copies of their book, on their website, for a monthly fee.  You didn't own the books, you didn't even have a guarantee they'd be there tomorrow, as it was supposed to be a rotating library.  Shortly afterwards, companies were offering entire runs  of titles on DVD for not unreasonable prices.  But they were PDFs, which didn't scale well, and the interface took up valuable screen space.  So that dropped away, sadly.

A proprietary data format runs the risk of becoming unusable.  As long as there are digital devices, there will be MP3 players.  I want, nay I require, the ability to download my purchases and use them as I see fit, with the reasonable exception of making copies and distributing them.  Show me that, and drop the price to that magic number of purchase without throught that has made so many ridiculous apps so ridiculously popular, and I can't imagine things not improving.

We're in a much better place than we were.  A year ago the argument was "Will pirating comics kill comic stores?" They didn't.  Now wer're worrying that similar files, now available legally, will do the same.  They won't.  There's a dedicated core that want books they can hold, bag, board and box in the basement. 

They're just not a large enough number to keep the industry alive.