Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Comics Industry is Dead! Long live the Comics Industry!

There's been some discussion the past few days about the direct market in comics. By discussion I mean a passionate rant by Jude Terror of the Outhouse that did hold some level of truth followed by a rebuttal from Comics Beat's Heidi MacDonald that was much more level-headed and then as Jude pointed out to me as I wrote this... another rebuttal.

All of this was more or less sparked by the unfortunate news that Marvel has cancelled Nighthawk. (Disclaimer: I thoroughly enjoy Nighthawk, especially Ramon Villalobos' art).

I'm not going to dissect the rights and wrongs of either argument, but rather just toss out an opinion based on my experience as a creator, customer and a retailer. I've been a part-time retailer for 14 years. In the past few years, I've taken on a somewhat "silent partner" role in the store. Eventually, I will take the store, it's been in business for 30+ years and it's a store that has outlasted countless others in my city following the '90s boom and collapse.

Given my experience, some of the Terror Manifesto struck the right chords with me, some of it didn't. Heidi's approach - which was more analysis than rant - also struck a lot of the right chords also.

Essentially, there HAS been a shift in the way comics are consumed. Much more dramatic than comics no longer being sold on newsstands and grocery stores is the shift from monthly floppies to graphic novels and trades. I LOVE getting my comics every week. But I also love my ever-expanding graphic novel library. Hell, I buy the majority of my graphic novels from Barnes & Noble usually through gift cards and the constant discounts they offer. In fact, a recent discussion with my store's owner about product placement and store layout was about putting more of an emphasis on the graphic novel and trade stock while reducing the monthlies.

For the reader, sometimes consuming in trade and graphic novel form is much easier. Admittedly, I've moved that way for some titles as well. An example is the phenomenal Sheriff of Babylon. I get the issues every month, but I also wasted zero time getting the trade because that is a perfect example of a book that one must sit down, read and really digest. Reading it in one sitting is a completely different experience than it being serialized. When DC announced Omega Men was cancelled and then wasn't and then was, I decided that I would stop reading the monthlies and pick up the trade. It arrives this weekend and I can't wait to sit down and just read it all at once.

These are just two examples, but it does represent the way some readers consume. I also read A LOT of comics every week. So many that I can barely keep up and for me, it's easier to wait for the trades. I do religiously certain floppies as I always have like Action, Detective, Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Captain America, Moon Knight etc.), but even some of them, for example Green Arrow and Moon Knight, I always buy the trades.

I'm just one guy and obviously my reading habits don't reflect every reader. I've also been in the comics game since I could read, so I'm not exactly representative of a casual moviegoer or someone who happens to wander into a store.

In terms of the direct market, no I don't think it should die. But that isn't to say there can't be improvements made. Is it burning? Well, yes, for a number of reasons and the majority of the problem isn't with retailers and customers. There is some blame to put on the system for sure.

The preorder system is both a blessing and a curse for everyone involved, but it's relatively low-risk for the publishers and Diamond while it can cripple a store. Here's a pattern I'm sure other stores see. Captain Comic #1 comes out. Marvel and DC load up the marketing, must have issue. If it's Image, they are sending emails to retailers berating them for not ordering enough (these are totally real). Captain Comic #1 and all it's variants sell out. All the regular readers want it, and all the people who saw it in USA Today or on Good Morning America want it. So what does a retailer do? Up the order for issue #2. A month goes by. You MIGHT see issue #2 sell out, but odds are the regular customers get it and a few people who picked up #1 come back in and get it. Everybody else? They made their $20 on eBay. So now, we have a retailer left with some unwanted #2s, do we have enough time to cut the order of issue #3? No? Shit. We've also got an influx of #1 reprints coming in. Captain Comic #3 comes out. Now we're just down to regular readers and the one or two new readers. Let me throw $20 at Facebook and target the shit out of selling this book. Issue #4 comes out. Now only half the regular readers are still getting it. The initial order of #1 was 200 copies, we're down to 10. Issue #5 comes out, now it's only 5 or 6 regulars with a subscription. Issue #6 is the last issue... book has been cancelled. Now the retailer is left with all this unsold, nonreturnable stock while the publishers and Diamond get ready to do it again. This is just one example of the vicious cycle that exists.

Customers are encouraged to preorder the books. A lot of them just don't understand that system, especially the ones without subscriptions, so when Captain Comic #1 sells out and they don't understand how that can happen, it's kind of awkward to explain how much of a gamble ordering something like that is.

Another quick example is this: Super Awesome Man #24 will feature the debut of a new Super Awesome Man... except now it's Super Awesome Woman. Huge news. It's so big that the publisher has spoiled the issue, two days before it releases - Christmas for Rich Johnston. Bleeding Cool runs the story. Newsarama and CBR runs the story. has about 50 articles asking the same question 20 different ways. Jude Terror has some snarky hot take. All the usual suspects do their thing. Then the mainstream news, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, The TODAY Show. This is huge news. Someone goes on Colbert. Someone gets mad at Nick Spencer.

That Wednesday, the phone is ringing off the hook, "I need Super Awesome Man #24!" The kicker? Three months ago, the issue was just "Super Awesome Man #24," there was no indication that this would in any way be a special issue. No additional copies were ordered. All five for non-subscribers sell out in a matter of minutes. Now you're just losing business because as a retailer, you weren't privy to how big of an issue this was going to be and now you and every other store are scrambling to reorder. What's the logical thing to do? Double or triple your order for Super Awesome Man #25. The casual readers don't get the preorder system, so you have to blindly compensate. The next month, you know what doesn't sell? Super Awesome Man #25. There's no marketing. No USA Today, no morning news. Rich Johnston has moved on and The Outhouse is just fighting with Dan Slott again.

I'm not trying to sound negative about this, I'm actually really optimistic about the future of comics, I'm just pointing out a reality. DC Rebirth has been really, really great from a retail standpoint. And even better is the box of unsolds my store owner has been itching to return. And that's not meant in a bad way, because now he can take that money from the returns and try different product or spread it around a little more without having to worry about storage or using up bags and boards to stuff them in our perpetually 30% off back issue bins.

Like I said, my store has been around for 30+ years and used to sell Spawn by the caseload in the '90s. To an extent, the owner is set in his ways, but he's really trying to sell these comics based on characters everyone loves. Characters that are literally everywhere now.

That's why I've been pushing him to heavily sell the culture of comics in addition to the comics themselves. But even that is tough. Around the corner is Gamestop, which sells the Funkos, T-shirts and action figures at constant discounts and it doesn't affect their bottom line if they don't sell through immediately. There's also Barnes & Noble, which is a store I love, but they can actually return stuff to Diamond. How do I know? We opened a case of Heroclix once that still had the Barnes & Noble price-tag on it.

I am one of those people who believes comics should be in grocery stores and "newsstands." But I don't think they should be the same comics you can get at a comic specialty store. Let me explain.

When Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, there was a one-shot called Avengers: Operation Hydra. It featured the movie cast, in the movie costumes, in movie canon. It was pretty much all-action and it was accessible to all-ages. It's not ground-breaking, but it's a fun comic. I love that book and to me, that's the kind of book that needs to be anywhere but specialty shops.

Writing for the trade makes up a majority of story-arcs and storylines now. And that's fine, I don't disagree with that strategy and I embrace it. I do however think that model has partially created some of the problems in the comics industry for larger and more iconic characters.

I've long been a proponent of the major publishers doing two lines. One is the standard continuity stuff- your Civil War II or your Rebirth - the other are standalones featuring characters in their most recognizable form, featured in quality stories for no more than $2 found (primarily) everywhere but comic shops. Call me optimistic, but that's a way to get both young and new readers. A good example of this is Spidey, or even the Adventures of Superman and Sensation Comics anthology styled books.

When I was a kid, I could go to the comic store (the same one mentioned) and I'd usually buy Superman comics from the '60s, '70s and '80s. Many of these books would stand on their own. There would be larger plot threads over multiple issues sure, but most of them gave 8 year old me a satisfying (sometimes ridiculous) Superman story. As for current books, I could go to the comic store or the convenience store near my elementary school or the grocery store and find arrays of books still following that pattern.

In middle and high school, I spent Summers at my grandparents' house where there wasn't a local comic shop, but the grocery store and all the convenience stores carried the books I needed - usually the Superman books, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men. Again, I realize this is just my experience alone, but I do think it speaks to a broader point.

I think print comics need to be available in more accessible forms everywhere, especially the major characters. I haven't really talked about digital comics and I'm not going to, because I don't think digital sales swing the pendulum significantly in either direction - they are a revenue stream and a convenience. Anyway, with the right marketing, 20 page, $2 standalone stories could sell at Toys R' Us, movie theaters, grocery stores and local shops. I really, wholeheartedly believe that and I believe it will have positive effects on overall readership.

Rounding back to return-ability. I do agree that in some fashion, Diamond and the publishers have to make the books returnable. My store isn't alone in the aforementioned vicious cycles. We're left with all this backstock that doesn't sell and lately Diamond comes knocking for the next round's payment when stores haven't broken even on the previous week's. This isn't all stores, but it's also not unique to mine. I know of two within a 50 mile radius that haven't received new comics since mid-July because Diamond refuses to send them.

Diamond used to grant leeway to local shops. Retail itself is a tough business and comics retail isn't any easier. As I mentioned, my store has been in business for 30+ years. There's a relationship with Diamond and one that often allowed for leeway when it came to payment. This has been the case for many retail shops. Then this Summer there was a shift. Something happened and suddenly, Diamond started demanding payment or else no books would ship. From the outside, it makes business sense, but from the inside, suddenly there's a panic... you can't make the payment for the week because you've got double the amount of books coming and last week DC didn't release anything and Marvel only had six books. But you need next week's shipment because it's a huge publisher relaunch, you'll be able to make up the difference, but after all these years, Diamond finally says no. Why? What happened?

Is it just business or is it the $1.5 million elephant in the room no one is talking about? I've talked to a number of stores all over the country and Diamond's shift in policy toward them seems to happen all around the same time - Hastings going under. Now, I'm not saying Hastings is responsible for a store's plight, nor am I saying they are responsible for the collapse of the industry, but $1.5 million is a big piece of revenue for Diamond and I just happened to notice it all occurring around the same time.

So yes, I do believe there is a bit of an unfair burden placed on the retailer. Especially small retailers who can't afford Midtown Comics-level advertising because they are mostly just worried about selling enough to get next week's books while maintaining their own bottom line and profit margin.

But I do believe there has to be an emphasis by publishers on evergreen stories for casual readers. A casual reader might pick up the Kelly Sue DeConnick Captain Marvel trade and head into a local shop looking for more of the same. What they will find is a drastically different Carol and overall tone in Civil War II than they do in Kelly Sue's phenomenal book, and I think that's a turn off for some casual readers.

And please, for the love of Zeus, at least put the Comic Shop Locator web address with your movies and TV shows. PLEASE.

With all of this said, we ARE in a Golden Age of comics, just not the mainstreams. Creator-owned and indie comics have so much talent and quality that I wish we all had the marketing budgets of Marvel and DC - we'd outsell them. This is why Kickstarter has become an incredibly crucial tool in the advancement of the comic industry. It allows creators and publishers to sell direct, cultivate an audience and make backers feel they are part of the story.

I've run Kickstarters, I've been carried by Diamond, I sell at cons. It's a grind, but I love it. I love comics and I want to see the industry broaden and reach a point where a small press can say 50,000 copies is considered a success, not 5,000.

Both Jude and Heidi are right. And the state of the comics industry is equal parts the everything is fine meme and Nero playing a fiddle while Rome burns. But the future can be really, really bright. The future can be a place where we look up to the sky in wonder again.

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