This whole pandemic shutdown, whether you agree with it or not or fall somewhere in-between, has hit the entertainment industry hard. In most cases the celebrities and creators will be fine, but the guys running the cameras or adjusting the lights or catering the studio are in trouble. With “non-essential workers” being told to stay home or outright being forced to have no income, and some businesses are so hard hit by no customers that they may never open again. This includes comics, an industry that’s already been hurting due to really bad decisions by the publishers, a few key creators I won’t go into here, and near-monopoly distributor Diamond. The stores are hurting and while some states are starting to slowly reopen to see what the health impact is it may take some time for comics to be profitable again.
However as I said, the industry has been going down due to bad decisions. Stores were closing even before Covid-19 was a household name. This forced “pencils down” action on the part of publishers (due in part to not having a distributor for physical comics right now, though DC has been trying to work around them…a discussion for another time) has also hurt creators but many fans and sellers see this as a good opportunity to course correct some of the many mistakes the publishers and Diamond have been making. In a recent article for Bleeding Fool, comic podcaster Chris Braly decided to grab some people from other comics podcasts and get their view on the future of comics post-cornoavirus. They seemed to agree on two big issues: comic stores are being the hardest hit and the longer people don’t have new comics to read the harder it will be for them to return to the habit. As someone who has been reading through his years-long collection of comics and been out of work since 2013 I’m still no expert but I’m not convinced on that last part, but the comic stores are taking a pounding.
You can read the full breakdown here, but my focus is going to be on the parts where the podcasters discuss what they want to see in comics on the other side of the quarantine. There are comments I actually agree with but with this being a versus article (still need to make a logo just for that) then you know I also have some disagreements.
First up are the remarks of Chris Marshall and Andy Tom, co-hosts of the Collected Comics Library podcast. Andy is up first and the one I most easily disagree with.
“I’d like to see the industry start moving toward a more “European style” graphic album rather than the monthly periodical format,” Andy continued, “this would provide creators with more lead time, a more consistent product, and not flood the market each month with a ridiculous amount of titles (which tend to “cannibalize” each other even within the same publishers). Were the publishers working on this model, I don’t think that we’d have had as much concern about the “pencils down” orders. In the end, comics are an art form, and as long as people love to read them and love to create them, there will always be comics in some format.”
I’ve seen people point to the manga style of serializing them in a magazine and then releasing the graphic novel trade style. I’ve seen others like Andy here push to get rid of any periodical format and go all graphic novel. If you’ve been here long enough you how strongly I disagree with that. The problem, which I plan to go over in a set of The Art Of Storytelling articles coming up, is that they have been writing graphic novels, dividing them into a periodical, and then collecting them for trade purposes. DC and Marvel have misunderstood that the reason WHY people look up trade collections of the most important stories in their universe’s history or the history of the readers’ favorite characters is because finding the single issues at a price worth paying is near impossible at times so a long, very important arc is worth getting the trade for. They created the trade waiting audience and that’s fine. We have people who prefer to binge their entertainment thanks to Netflix (though there is slowly forming a pushback by fans who realize watching a whole season at once put it out of their minds faster and may have a few drawbacks). The problem is they aren’t writing a single or two part story anymore. You’re lucky if we get four parts now. He does however list one issue that his partner focuses on a bit more.
Chris Marshall agrees that the weekly amount of books is too great. “I’d like to see Marvel and DC cut down on the number of titles i.e. multiple X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman and Superman books. I’d actually like to see more anthology titles like the old Marvel Comics Presents; perhaps 100 pages and on a quarterly basis.”
At one point there were five different Superman titles, four different Batman titles, four different Spider-Man titles, and titles that spun off from those series that would often get visits from those heroes and thus shared the same corner of their respective comic universes by association. There don’t need to be that many titles. I would think it would make tracked a shared universe that much harder, not that DC has cared about that in recent years, another bad decision by Dan DiDio. I don’t think they all need to be anthology titles, but having one or two like the old Showcase comics from DC would allow less popular heroes a chance to shine and introduce new ones while still keeping the limits under control. It’s better to have two checks for $20 than one check for $35.
John Mayo of The Comic Book Page is the next one on the list. (Side note: I wish Braly had linked to more websites instead of Apple hosts. Personal preference.) In his statements he discussed the problem with decompressed storytelling that comes for trade writing.
“Long gone are the days of self-contained comic book issues. Multi-issue arcs from the earlier days of comics took the time to get the reader back into the story. Modern comics take it for granted that the reader remembers all of the previous installments of the story. This pause of new material of an indeterminate time could seriously hurt story momentum both for readers and potentially even for creators. The “pencils down” orders from some publishers means some creators might find themselves after the pandemic trying to resume partially told stories that might need to be altered have to reflect changes both to the audience and to the creators themselves that happened during the pandemic. It is fairly certain that will be changed by the pandemic as a society even if the nature of those changes is not immediately obvious. Breaking the creation, ordering, shipping and payment cycles on the business side of comics could also have a serious impact. Any company just barely surviving before the pandemic might not survive this sudden pausing of the industry. The longer this suspension of new comics goes on, more companies are likely to be impacted. The industry and the hobby will almost certainly shrink as a result of the pandemic.”
Any story currently in part 2 or even parts 3-4 or however many issues the trade gods demand are in trouble…unless the reader goes back into their library and re-reads the previous issues. It’s not like they have anything better to do. What, do modern collectors not keep their issues anymore? Did we somehow fall back into the same habits that led to Amazing Fantasy #15 being worth so much? I do get his point, though. It goes back to what he and others kept saying about comic readers getting back into the habit of visiting their comic store and buying new comics. So what does he hope comes out of this?
“We could come out the other side of this with a leaner, more focused industry. My advice is to rethink everything without preconceived notions of what used to be true. This is a chance for people and companies to rethink how they do things and why they do them that way. No doubt we’ll see some changes as a result. Some will be minor but there are opportunities for major changes as well.”
I think it’s wishful thinking on all our parts that they’re going to change seeing how hard they try to convince themselves, and us, that nothing was wrong with the previous business practices.
“The industry will bounce back. It just might not look the same when it does. I’ve been concerned about the reliance on incentive covers and other short-term sales gimmicks The standard six issue chapters of an arc writing mindset needs to be dropped in favor of issues which have a better emotional “return on investment” for the readers. By which I mean each issue needs to be satisfying in and of itself. That doesn’t mean shifting to done-in-one stories. It means individual issues need to be more accessible. They need to have a beginning, middle and end, even if they play into a larger story. The key is the focus needs to be on the story in the individual issue, in place of the current focus on the larger story arc of the collected edition.”
“Sales need to be based more on story content than on incentive covers and other gimmicks such as the death and resurrection of characters or “event” storylines. Comic book characters and story concepts are at the height of popularity with the mass market audience. We just need to see comic books leverage that increased popularity from the movies and television shows based on comic books.”
Amen to all that! It’s what I’ve been saying for years. On the other hand you have Mike Myers (no, not him) (not him either) of the Geek Brunch Podcast, who may be the wishful thinking champion of this piece.
“I really think the major players Marvel, DC and Image should be having brainstorm meetings right now and “thinking outside the box” on how to keep the medium alive, because coming up with separate plans will not work. I think the Geppi Family will be looking to sell their distribution market right now. Maybe Disney could buy the distribution and charge everyone else like DC used to do in the past. I think there will be less product going forward which will drive up the demand for back issues. The comic stores with the largest inventory of back issues and other media will survive. The bigger stores and the industry will become more reliant on mail order system like Amazon. The digital market will grow the longer the system is down and subscription services will grow in popularity. Those that just want stories will be converted to digital and collectors will go to the mail order system. As a whole the market will be smaller because the average consumer will have found other means to entertain themselves.”
With all the trouble Diamond went through to get exclusive distribution rights to all the main companies at the time, driving competitors like Advance Comics out of business, I highly doubt they’re going to let Amazon take over their turf. As it is I’ve heard they’re fighting DC over their plans to use other distribution chains since the “pencils down” order comes from Diamond refusing to ship anything…yet still asking for solicitations for the Previews catalog from the publishers they distribute from. How does that even work? They missed a whole month of comic selling and they want the publishers to keep pushing new comics when they can’t get the current ones into anywhere? The wrong distributor won the war, folks.
Drew Ellinger, co-host of Comics For Fun And Profit, has similar high expectations.
“Depending on how long this lasts, maybe comics publishers can improve distribution of print comics outside the direct market and booksellers. I would love to see the return of the spinner rack in every drugstore, market and grocery. The industry needs an influx of young readers to replace all of us older readers.”
Under the current trade writing model I don’t see this as being successful. I haven’t been to Stop N Shop in quite some time but they used to have a spinner rack that carried DC, Marvel, and Archie comics. Getting comics to the masses would put comics back in the public eye for everyone. Have an ad in the comic pointing to comic stores for back issues, even more titles (maybe have a title for the regular stores and another exclusive to comic stores), and other fans. The big problem here is the price. Even as far back as my youth a comic was priced well for a quick purchase, a short bit of amusement to keep the kids quiet during the ride home or something to splurge their allowance on that would entertain them at grandma’s house if there were no cousins to play with. Nowadays they’re priced too much for a simple impulse buy so they can have the shiny paper. (Oooooooohhhh. Shiny.) Getting comics out there would help the industry only if the stories are worth buying and priced for the average citizen who isn’t a comics geek to give it a shot.
The final commentary comes from Augie De Pipeline Comics. To be honest I’m only adding this one so I don’t leave anyone out. The selected part of his commentary is still rather fascinating.of
When getting into what the retailers are doing, Augie mentioned a Google document where other retailers had been adding their thoughts and strategy ideas for a retail industry comeback.
“Distribution has always been a sore spot in the comics pipeline, so this might be a good time to reconsider how it works from the most fundamental levels. The retailers are brainstorming as we speak with their list of demands, but some of them go too far and get a little silly. Hopefully, the low hanging fruit — infrastructure things like ease-of-ordering and a more logical set of codes, etc. — can be fixed in relatively short order. Bigger changes like non-returnability will likely need to be made, if only in the short term, to help spread out the risk while the industry restarts itself. Generally, though, I’m pessimistic. People will just want things to get back to the way they were, which in large part is what made this situation so dire to begin with. I chuckle at how many times I’ve seen people make suggestions to “fix” our current problems which just brings everything back to that way things were. You can only chase away customers, raise prices while limiting the material, and restrict your product to 2000 stores for so long before nobody wants to party with you anymore. This is the chance for the entire industry to reconsider some pretty major fundamentals, and make some huge changes that will ensure something like the Direct Market survives in the long term.”
That’s where the blame really belongs, not on the demon virus but on the industry who has been hurting their own sellers and chasing off readers for years. Unless the industry really does or has taken time to rethink their business model–DC currently has the best opening as they also said farewell to their co-publisher who was dragging the DCU down–and a whole bunch of practices by themselves and their creators and editors we’re just going to go back to the same way things were, only with a faster decline thanks to the shutdown. Will it end comics? Only the future can tell but if they don’t redo how they’ve done things, virus or no, Some of our cultural icons will only exist on film and forgotten folded paper.