Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The State of the Comics Industry

San Diego Comic Con 2017 has come and gone. WIth it came a pretty rad “Thor: Ragnarock” trailer, the first footage of “Avengers: Infinity War,” WB continuing their streak of great trailers (“Justice League”), the announcement that the standalone Flash movie would be “Flashpoint” and the first look at so many really cool collectibles that are sure to burn a hole in your wallet. However, there was some news that wasn’t good. In fact, the news is pretty dire and paints a portrait of an entire industry in peril.

Comics have become secondary at shows like San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con and this was certainly the case this year, but along with their third-class status was the harsh reality many of us in the comic book community have - and still have - a hard time accepting: the comics industry is in trouble. Big trouble.

I’m not being facetious, there were two very real alarms that went off during San Diego Comic-Con followed by a third sentiment I’ve been seeing from many creators. The first alarm came during the Diamond panel. The direct market is down 6.3% in 2017, that’s incredibly troubling. The second alarm came in the form of DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, as Lee very bluntly stated the comics industry was on the verge of collapse. This is one of the two major publishers that keep the industry afloat acknowledging the dire situation the comics industry finds itself in.

These two factors alone push the state of the industry into red alert, but comics have been on a steady decline through much of the 2010s. Retail shops close regularly and often with few popping up in their place, some retailers struggle to pay for their weekly shipments and ever since the closing of Hastings, leaving Diamond with a $1.6 million punch in the gut, the sole distributor of comics has little sympathy or patience for retailers who can’t cover their increasingly large weekly shipments.

Who is to blame, exactly? There are absolutely a few fingers to point.

You can point at DC and the lukewarm response to the New 52 and the attempted course correct with DC You. Readers saw fatigue in titles, constantly shifting initiatives and a lack of clear direction. That has since changed with DC Rebirth. Although Rebirth is pretty successful and has restored a great deal of reader faith in DC, it’s been a slow build. To their credit, DC seems to acknowledge this and has used Rebirth as a baseline to tell newer stories that don’t outright ignore history. In addition, I think the smartest thing DC has done in the past 5 years is brand the Multiverse across all medium, but it’s a bit refreshing to finally see them acknowledge there is a problem. Part of the brilliance of branding the Multiverse is they can open up the floodgates for new characters, interpretations of characters and diversify characters, all without doing so at the expense of classic iterations.

You can also point the finger at Marvel. Ever since the rousing success of Civil War in 2006, they’ve doubled down on major crossover events that have become increasingly long and difficult to follow. The sheer amount of tie-ins also increase the cost of trying to follow an event to the fullest and has led to event fatigue. Not to mention that Marvel especially touts their events as “universe changing” and nothing really happens. The most recent “Secret War” was a HUGE opportunity for Marvel to reboot everything and start fresh, but instead the most drastic things to happen were some characters from the Ultimate Universe coming over, some alternate reality time-traveling and general confusion in its wake. Don’t believe me? Explain Old Man Logan or the time-displaced X-Men (namely Cyclops) to someone looking to start reading X-Men. I won’t even begin to pontificate on Hydra Cap, but I will say that both criticisms and support of Secret Empire are equally not without merit.

Crossovers and content only scratches the surface of the steady decline of Marvel. The House of Ideas has an insane amount of books that come out every week and they are typically priced at $3.99. This starts to add up after a few books. The other thing about Marvel - and this is going to be more of a controversial hot take but goes with my point about DC - is that their push to diversify their characters did not go quite as planned.

There’s definitely room for more diversity and comics - and it is sorely needed from the characters to the creators - but Marvel’s approach alienated longtime readers and a lot of potential new readers looking to supplement their movie or television intake. Some of these characters have been Marvel’s approach to “Legacy” heroes, but they’ve come at the expense of classic versions of characters, especially at a time when their most recognizable characters are everywhere. WIth no new monthly alternatives that feature classic iterations or branded versions, readers can be turned off. This has left Marvel in a bind, whether you want to admit it or not. Their upcoming “Legacy” initiative was once again another opportunity for Marvel to clean the slate and reboot, but alas, “Legacy” reveals have been met with a resounding groan from retailers and readers.

An argument was made that the success of movies and TV has contributed to the decline of comics, “why read when you can watch?” To be blunt, I think that’s a load of BS. Graphic novel and trade sales spike when movies or TV events happen. Whatever is being adapted usually gets a new edition and a fresh set of eyes. But when those eyes come looking for something new, they’ll be hard-pressed to find it. DC has righted their course with Rebirth, Marvel still hasn’t quite adjusted.

But blaming just the big two - and Diamond - doesn’t cover everything. Image Comics has also become a source of strife for monthlies. Image has always been a great alternative to the big two, and pricing the majority of their trades at $9.99 is a stroke of genius, but because of that Image also can’t outsell a first issue. Image has new a “#1” pretty regularly, but their books don’t catch fire like “The Walking Dead” did. This isn’t to say Image puts out bad books - they don’t, and neither does BOOM! Studios or licensed property farm IDW, but those market shares are relatively small compared to the others.

These factors reverberate down and affect independent and small press creators as well. This day and age, self-publishing or small press is an effective way to publish books. Kickstarters are plentiful - crowd-funding helps produce books with less potential risk, which is huge - and creators can build impressive portfolios. The caveat is that independent comics have to compete with the big publishers for those dollars. Most creators can’t charge less than $5 for a single issue and distribution through Diamond isn’t always cost-effective. Diamond takes a huge percentage off retail price to carry your book and that ultimately hurts the bottom line if your book isn’t picked up by a publisher, or that distribution cost isn’t factor in to a crowdfund or budget.

Additionally, conventions have become a crapshoot. There are a lot of conventions all over the country and the cost for an exhibition booth or an artist’s alley table is often restrictive. Once again, you’re competing with bigger name talent and publishers - not to mention print sellers - and it becomes an exhaustive grind to squeeze dollars out of potential customers just to cover your table cost. Not to mention, a lot of these cons feature celebrities who often get the easy autograph or photo op dollars.

And of course, given the problems retailers have with sales of the big two, they aren’t always willing to carry a small press or independent title, save for consignment or some arrangement. The likelihood of them ordering a book in the depths of the Previews catalog is slim, and making your book stand out in said catalog is also difficult.

Finally, one note to readers, collectors and speculators. Your comics, unless they are critical issues like first appearances or come from before 1980, are likely not worth anything. They aren’t going to be worth anything and keeping the industry afloat by buying up 10 copies of new #1s isn’t helping the industry. The back issue market is and always will be pretty strong, but the likelihood of any modern comics being worth their weight in gold - minus a few exceptions - is very slim.

Where do comics go from here? The problems with the industry are from top to bottom, publisher to retailer to customer. Dan DiDio and Jim Lee were certainly not wrong to acknowledge the collapsing industry and San Diego Comic-Con 2017 proved that it has become more of a pop culture beast than a comic book show. Do comics return to newsstands? Is it time to abandon Diamond’s faulty direct market model? Should the major publishers take a page out of small press Alterna and print monthlies on newsprint to lower costs and prices? Everyone has a potential solution, despite some creators and publishers insisting everything is fine. Everything is most certainly not fine and the comics industry needs a revitalization in order to survive.

I’ll be there doing my best to keep it alive.

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