Saturday, 9 July 2011

Why more people aren't reading comics

Literally, the only image of comics on sale in a non-specialist shop that I could find on Google.
Imagine if the distribution model for comic books changed, but the products didn't. Right? You have any number of the 90+ books published monthly by Marvel and DC and currently distributed by Diamond via the Direct Market to specialist comic book stores, but now they're on shelves in every major supermarket, drugstore and newsagent across the US. Maybe beyond, into major English-speaking territories. Comics are here! Hurrah!

Except they're on sale in the same place as DVDs, video games, CDs, lifestyle magazines, books, clothing, lottery tickets, Red Bull, iPods, ice cream, coffee, action figures, trampolines, go-karts and board games. Suddenly, the comic book economy meets the non-comic book economy and I defy anyone other than the most ardent comic book junkie to argue that a single issue in the current format is good value when compared to the vast majority of items in those stores. They will not move quickly.

A new reader walks in and sees a shiny new display of comic books. "Wow, I didn't realise they still published Spiderman" (lack of hyphen intended, as I'm sure that guy wouldn't know, bless him). He flicks through it, impressed by the art and intrigued by the characters. He wonders what else Marvel publish. He browses a while and, although many of the books appeal, it's something of a mystery how he's going to know he's picked books that will make sense. This one says 'Part 4 of 7', so it goes back on the shelf. He takes some DC, too. "Hey, look! I know that Green Lantern guy from the movie last year!" (I'm setting this in 2012, because I'm optimistic like that).

All done, he puts eight titles in his cart and continues his shop. When he comes to the checkout, those books account for 20% of his spend.

Obviously, it's a scenario I've dreamed up, but there's nothing to say that couldn't happen. This guy wants to read comics, but a high percentage of a spend in a grocery shop would be significant enough that the customer would have to at least make a conscious decision as to whether that is sustainable. And remember, this is eight books. Not even as many as the Big 2 would hope for each customer to buy.

My all-time favourite Savage Dragon page(s). Art by Erik Larsen/Dylan McCrae

Erik Larsen, creator of Savage Dragon and original Image Comics founder, proposed a new way of thinking regarding comic books last year. It works, if you ask me. I'd argue that the featured characters maybe should be split, however, maybe in order of public awareness. If you put Spider-Man as the full-length lead strip, with two more strips behind it (say, Luke Cage & Iron Fist and Silver Surfer, for argument's sake). Price it reasonably, like the $5.95 mentioned above. Not only is that an impulse buy, but there's no reason all three strips couldn't be good enough to a) keep the customer coming back month after month and b) suggest to them that other books, like that Hulk/Black Widow/Punisher one, might be of equal quality. Throw in Green Lantern/The Question/Hawkman and he's got nine stories for under $18. That's value.

For Marvel and DC, it seems to me that if they don't either go down this route, or release individual characters' stories in volumes on an ad hoc basis, the monthly books are doomed.

Uncanny X-Force. One of the very best of the current superhero books, but is it enough to win new readers? (Art by Mark Brooks/Dean White)
But that's only dealing with the Marvel/DC superhero set which have been in vogue since the 1960s. Why think in revolutionary terms if you're only going to roll over and accept the continued domination of a single genre (it's not a genre, actually)? Let's stay with the above scenario. Comics are in supermarkets, etc. Who will buy them? Kids? Parents? Teens? Adults with geek tendencies? Housewives? Middle managers? Pensioners? Teachers? Blue collar workers? CEOs?

Yeah, I wouldn't read it either, but not all books are for me. Why should comics be any different?
Assuming independent companies can afford a presence in the store, the balance is still likely to be 90% skewed towards corporately-owned superhero titles. That rules out a huge part of a potential readership.

I pray to The Giant Prawn Overlord that publishers are wise enough to publish trashy romance, melodrama, historic fiction, classics, war stories, non-fiction, chick lit, detective stories and the like. The equivalents of all of these are available in novel and DVD form. There is no reason in the world why a divorced lady of forty-seven with no prior experience of comics shouldn't be able to find and purchase a comic book about a struggling musician in a small Alaskan town.

There's no proven market for that kind of thing in comics, true. Maybe in novels? Maybe in TV movies? Some people like those true life 'girl in a well' movies and I bet would buy a similar comic if there wasn't the stigma attached (mostly because of superheroes) and if the writing and art was good. There's no point in doing it half-arsed.

I was fortunate enough to have a few beers with Andy Diggle last week and I got a bit ranty when we started talking about what was wrong with comics, proclaiming that "somebody should make Hamish MacBeth: the Comic".

I was serious, and I think the consensus amongst attendees was that yes, it should be possible, but it's VERY unlikely. But everyone else was drunk, too. Using that logic, I didn't embarrass myself...

Here's the thing: I love comics and I want to see them thrive again, but every time I see a new comic which looks like it might be a bold attempt at something new, then a zombie or a robot or a ghost turns up, I die a little. We should have today's superstar writers and artists working on comics that don't require a nerd degree to find interesting.

I'm going to round this out with a series of links to comic book-related projects which are daring to be different. I humbly submit that these folks are getting it right:

  1. CLiNT - Mark Millar's baby, published by Titan Magazines. A monthly (now 6-weekly) anthology title for the FHM crowd. Features mature readers' properties in reprint form, mostly, but available in supermarkets and newsagents.
  2. Witch - from Kickstart Comics. This article explains the reason I chose this better than I could.
  3. Womanthology - setting some kind of record for the fastest-funded comic book project on Kickstarter, the brainchild of awesome artist Renae De Liz is a mammoth, all-female hardcover comic book to be published by IDW. What's remarkable about this is the astronomical popularity in such a short time. Take note.
  4. Cinebook - a UK publisher of European reprints. The European system works in a way I think the Direct Market prohibits, but I see this as being a viable alternative. Comics published when completed, in volumes of varying size and with finite stories.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you think you can add something that we should all check out, by all means, please comment.

Note: I searched on Google for the phrase "breaking new ground in comics" and the first hit was a New York Times article from 1992. Yes, 1992.


  1. The trouble is that it's only the people at the bottom of the comics food chain like us who want to see any kind of change in the industry. Both Marvel and DC are owned by massive media conglomerates Disney and Time Warner, respectively) who likely see the comics as the least important part of all of their respective ventures. I sometimes think that the only reason the comics are kept going is to be an excuse to keep making the toys and films and toys based on the films. Nobody outside of the actual production of the comics sees any real value in comics. The only reason newsagents stock CLiNT is because it's sold as a magazine - similar treatment comics received back in the 60s that led to the Comics Code Authority and spawned publication such as Mad Magazine to get around the narrow thinking retailers. Perhaps I have a rather defeatist attitude towards change in the industry, but I believe that until the big wigs decide that there is enough value in comics to invest money into putting them in the hands of a larger potential customer base, we're just screaming into the wind.

  2. My opinion has always been that a little guy needs to make it big with a business model that bucks the system and the minute it's successful, the big boys will mimic that system as well.

    Future Comics almost succeeded in this regard (with their mail-order/POD distribution system) but they screwed up by giving into Diamond, who screwed them fierce. And pretty much everybody else plays the Diamond game upfront.

    I look at Shonen Jump, which you can find in Gas Stations, Book Stores, Grocery Stores and as far as I know (even now), they're still great sellers. That's the same model that someone should really adopt to get books out there. B/W, 15 or so pages of story for every book and 5 or 6 comics in each edition.

    It's pretty much THE business model Larsen talks about and it's successful over here and it's how manga's are distributed in Japan.

    Much like McDonald's and how they introduced "Super-Size" which every fast-food restaurant adopted or someone makes a great western and so 20 westerns are green-light in Hollywood; if someone put out a line of Shonen Jump-esque books that sold like hot-cakes, DC and Marvel would have to follow suit because they want to make money/stay relevant.

    It's just a question of who has the money, time and talent to try to make such a model profitable.



  4. Gav, I totally agree. Disney and Time Warner are probably content to let the comic book publishing side of things tootle along as is, just as long as it keeps the staff happy. There's no progression being made. BUT, what I would add is that the 'little guy' who can make a difference happens all the time in other industries. Mark Zuckerberg, J K Rowling (imagine if she got on board with comics, she could probably rejuvenate the industry single-handed), Quentin Tarantino, Arctic Monkeys... ridiculous success based on bucking trends.

    The difference between them and most of the equivalent people in comics is that they were very shrewd with how they marketed and presented themselves, thinking ahead, using the cutting-edge methods or just plain doing their research. I see so many small press guys content to spend thousands on sub-standard work, then just throw it all to Diamond's mercy. Is the result ever going to be more than "Yay, I published something!"?

  5. Ryan: again, very good points. I hear a lot about Shonen Jump, but I've never seen it. Maybe I should pick up a copy (if it's available in the UK) for research.

    I'll admit to only having a very rudimentary knowledge of Future Comics. I saw Freemind and another title I forget the name of in Wizard magazine, back in the day. My initial thought was "nice, but a bit old-fashioned", which I never got past (I was a HUGE Joe Mad guy, back then). I didn't know about the distribution angle at all! With the benefit of ignorance and hazy hindsight, I'd say that it was not only an idea ahead of its time, as far as the internet is concerned, but it makes Diamond seem like NewsCorp (ie: evil and almost invincible).

    Maybe it's time somebody tried it again? I also wonder why they didn't circumnavigate the Diamond issue by supplying to non-comic book stores, too.

  6. Dan, I don't understand Tumblr so I can comment there.

    Your point about the free toy on kids' comics is a very interesting one. I dismiss it as tat; an unnecessary and cheap gimmick, but until now I hadn't considered a couple of things. Firstly, perceived value. I'm sure more than one kid has become a comic reader because their parents bought them one of the UK comics solely for the free gift. Secondly, it's highlighted the rigid structures of the two distribution methods.

    Newsagents and supermarkets over here consider the covermount to be an integral part of a kids' comic. Comic stores would hardly even consider it. There's just no freedom for invention, or confidence in the product, seemingly from either publisher or retailer.

    As a result of this revelation, I've just realised how good of an idea the polybagged Marvel death issues are. Sod it! Gimme gimmicks, just as long as they work.