Star Wars: The Clone Wars

One thing I want to get straight before we go in is that I don’t have an issue with Image publisher Eric Stephenson personally. While the majority of Image’s product is not for me (although a few do pop up that I collect), they’re not systematically destroying their characters to appeal to the “kewl kids” or ruining my childhood favorites. They aren’t usually called upon for poor treatment of female characters, so if it DOES happen it’s under the radar. I have never met him or honestly heard about him since I don’t usually follow Image. Or maybe he’s just not as in-your-face as DiDio or Joe Quesada was. (Alex Alonzo is making some of the same mistakes but he isn’t demanding we love his universe again and again because he’s smarter than we are, or in DiDio’s case better than the other writers.)

However, Stephenson’s recent speech at the ComicPRO convention in Atlanta, Georgia last month upset a number of comic fans. I found out that Bleeding Cool posted the transcript. I’m not going to repost the entire speech here but I will look at the speech and see exactly what he said and how annoyed fans should really be by it. Here we go, kids.

I hope you don’t mind if I deviate from standard practice, but instead of talking about Image Comics this morning, I’d like to talk about you.

Except he does at points. The “you” in this case are the retailers at the convention, not us fans. ComicsPRO is a convention for direct market comic stores to look over what’s out there and what’s coming in the future as well as helping them to continue being a viable business.

You talk, we listen, and I think that ongoing dialogue between publishers and retailers is one of the things that make the Direct Market so unique. Simply put: You care. As a result, while other stores – other comic book stores, mass-market bookstores, entire chains – have disappeared from the retail landscape, you’re still here, and in many cases, you’re stronger than ever. Sales will always fluctuate, but given that print was being pronounced dead as early as 20 years ago, the comics market has remained remarkably stable.

I thought comic book stores WERE the direct market? I’m not taking a shot at him, this is just news to me.

Every publisher here talks to your counterparts in the bookstore market, and do you know what they’re telling us? They’re telling us graphic novels are one of the only categories of print publishing that is growing.

That’s something you should be proud of, because while a growing graphic novel section in your local Barnes & Noble might not seem like something you should be happy about, you can rest assured that even the largest of those graphic novel sections is smaller than your own.

Bookstores sell collected trades because the comic companies, at least the big ones, rarely make original graphic novels anymore. Or are we still using “graphic novel” and “comic book” interchangeably or replacing the latter with the former? There…is…a…difference!

And it’s our job – yours, mine, all of ours – to figure out how to reach that growing audience and drive them to the Direct Market, because as bookstores continue to close and chains continue to disappear, the best place to get comics in the future will continue to be the best place to get comics now:

Your stores.

I love my local comic shop. They’re really guys nice, I have good conversations with the owner, and they do good with the local conventions, including co-running Brass City Comic Convention. And yet, I remember getting comics in regular stores. I first started collecting from a pharmacy near my school, and when that was bought out and the new owners dropped comics there were the supermarkets. I see comics on a spinner at Stop & Shop now but most of them aren’t so kid-friendly even thought they used to be. Comic stores are a great place for fans to gather and should be a place to find stuff that you might not elsewhere. But more and more elsewhere doesn’t exist. Even the bookstores I’ve been to recently don’t carry the floppies, just the trades. Shouldn’t we be trying to enlarge comics’ reach? It’s like putting movies ONLY in someplace like FYE and not having them in Target.

One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.” There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics. Everything else should be irrelevant. So stop letting publishers lie to you and deceive you and your readers so they can prop up their position in this industry in their craven attempts to appease shareholders.

This amuses me for one big reason: Diamond and their Previews catalog. They used to have competition in the form of Advance Comics, a much better service to comics stores. Diamond, however, has screwed over two places I’ve gotten comics from since they forced Advance out of business. And how did they do it? By getting exclusive rights to DC, Marvel, and (dramatic pause) Image Comics. These three, as well as Dark Horse and IDW, get prime space at the beginning of the book. All the other publishers, including Archie and Boom (who also have some darn popular titles) are listed alphabetically after their section in the catalog. Apparently being one of the “big three” (or rather “big five”) doesn’t seem to bother him so much.

Otherwise I’d agree with him on this.

Are $4.99 and $7.99 comics going to help our industry in the long run? No, but they sure help the bottom line at the end of the year.

Except it makes it harder to collect a lot of titles. My weekly comic budget is around $20 barring special items, and has been for some time now because they’re rather expensive. That +$20 gets me six comics on a good week.

Same with gimmick covers and insane incentives to qualify for variants that will only have a limited appeal for a limited amount of time. Everybody moans about variants, but here’s the honest to goodness truth: You stop ordering variants; we’ll stop making them.

Powerpuff Girls variant

On the upside, this canceled variant meant they still had a cover for this issue.

I think variants are silly but I ignore them to a point. There are some things that shouldn’t be done, though:

  1. Do NOT put variants on kids’ comics. There’s no need to confuse them into thinking there is more than one issue of the same comic. They don’t understand marketing gimmicks and unless they’re still comic fans neither will their parent or grandparent or whomever will be buying the comics.
  2. Do NOT put variants on kids’ comics. I just want to stress that.
  3. Do NOT make variant covers that form one large picture…OF THE SAME ISSUE! The covers of three different issues? Sure. Three variants of the SAME issue is just lack of concern in your fans, plus I’d rather get the next two issues than three of the same comic.

Also, considering how much hype is put into these variants, as much as the other marketing gimmicks (and then you have the other gimmicks added to that like lenticular covers that get “accidentally” shorted) you’re praying on the collectors market, including the idiots who still think if they buy the right comic they can retire in a few years. Because there are still stories about how much that issue of Action Comics that debuted Superman is going for and people who don’t understand why it’s selling for so much.

And yes, I do wish variants weren’t doing so well for them because it artificially inflates how well a comic is actually doing. I’m not letting the fans off on this one. It’s your fault for buying these instead of spending the money on a different comic rather than 3 copies of the same issue. But I shouldn’t need to hope to get the cover with the artist who should have done the cover in the first place.

They are only produced to shore up market share, that’s it and that’s all, and when used in conjunction with quantity-based incentives, they don’t sell more comics, they just result in stacks of unsold books that send the wrong message to your customers about the titles, your stores, and our industry.

If you hate them that bad, stop making them! Put those resources into a new title or improving and promoting your current ones.

If you want an example of how this works outside of comics – just look at the music industry, where they’ve nearly re-issued, re-mastered, and re-packaged themselves into an early grave. Box sets, deluxe sets, double-packs, multi-packs, and premium prices for premium packaging. In an age where virtually everything is available digitally and for less money, the record companies chose to milk their nostalgia-starved customer base for every last penny, and look where it’s gotten them.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania is only going to line their pockets for so long, and there are only so many “unreleased” Hendrix albums that are going to bring people in the door of the precious few record stores that are left standing in the wake of years of short-term thinking. But that’s the music industry. We can do better than that.


Marketing gimmick not mentioned: Obama.

Um, no, that’s not the same thing. The Beatles are still popular enough that they’re music and other productions continues to play on TV and radio. They just had a reunion with Paul and Ringo and one local radio station here plays a national Beatles show. New people are born into this world all the time, or come here from a country where their music was never played, fall in love with their music, and want to own a copy. Or, since CDs and their predecessors are fragile, they lose their copy and want a new one.

Now if you used Filmation’s constant remastering of Dragonball Z you might have a case, except the same conditions apply. Now if comics were being reprinted all the time you’d have a match, and I wouldn’t mind having an easier way to catch up with certain titles than the leftovers that tend to be higher priced than either the cover price or a new comic based on how in demand the store thinks it is. Or it ends up in the clearance bin but you have to be lucky to find a title you want in there…and buy it before Slay Monstrobot‘s Brian Snell comes into the store.

Constantly re-launching, re-numbering, and re-booting series after series, staging contrived events designed to appeal to a demographic destined only to a slow march toward attrition,…….

I know someone who won’t get into DC because of the constant re-booting. Also, Marvel and DC appear to be ashamed of higher numbers. There was a time when such milestones were celebrated because it meant people loved the title enough to keep it going all this time. That used to be a good thing. Then the speculator bubble hit and screwed everything up. Basically, the 90’s ruined everything comic-related it touched that wasn’t being produced on television by Bruce Timm.

….and pretending that endless waves of nostalgia for old movies, old toys, old cartoons, and old video games somehow equals ideas or innovation will not make us stronger.

Nostalgia has its place, and I’ll admit, there can be a certain sepia-toned appeal to fondly looking back on our younger, more innocent days, but if we want this industry to outlive us, we have to start looking at things like grown ups.

And grown ups don’t read comics…what? I don’t follow this line. As for that nostalgia, is Stephenson saying that nostalgia has no place in stories? That we can’t have new stories based on the properties we loved as kids? Then why do they still make Star Trek or Doctor Who? Why is General Hospital the only soap ABC has left? People want new stories of the IP they love. The question is whether or not those stories are faithful to what we loved about those old toys, cartoons and…wait, when’s the last time an OLD video game had a comic based on it? Is somebody publishing Asteroids? Or does he not realize Mass Effect is something recent?

Superheroes are great. I grew up reading superhero comics. But over the years, when the writers and artists and editors and publishers I looked up to talked about advancing the medium, about producing more challenging content, and creating comics that appealed to adults, never once did I mistake what they were saying to be, “We need to find a way for superhero comics to appeal to more adults.”

This is the comic book industry, not the superhero industry, and if we want to stick around for the long haul, we need to recognize that and capitalize on that, because as much as I fond as I am of the superhero comics I read when I was younger, the full scope of what comics are and what comics can be is what will ultimately bring the world into your stores.

Spawn DVD case

Image doesn’t go for that superhero stuff.

I have no problem trying to focus on non-superhero titles. Image makes quite a few superhero comics but they also try to do other things. I give them credit for that. I just wish the superhero comics were about superHEROES. Not in today’s DC and Marvel’s heroes I seldom find as inspiring. Could just be me, though.

One thing I hadn’t counted on was having so much to say on this one speech. So I’ll stop here for the benefit of your eyes and tomorrow we’ll pick up as Stephenson goes on about getting new readers and licensed comics. These are his solutions. They’re not very good.

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About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

One response »

  1. […] Vs. Eric Stephenson’s Speech (Part 1|Part 2): Image publisher Eric Stephenson gave a speech at ComicPRO, a gathering of comic retailers, […]


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