Friday, December 18, 2009

The Wash: 12/18/09

o In his "Tilting at Windmills" column, retailer Brian Hibbs responds to DC's recent announcement of original book-length Batman and Superman comics by high-profile creators Geoff Johns and J. Michael Straczynski. In particular, Hibbs rejects the suggestion "that in another decade comics won't be sold as periodicals any more":

I hear this in 2009. I heard this in 1999. I heard this in 1989. I'm told, by people who are even more lifers than myself that this was being said in 1979, and I presume it was also said in '69 and '59, and, heck, maybe even '49 as well. I remember, pretty vividly, that when comics went from 75 cents to $1 that people were saying periodical comics were dead. I heard that again when they went from $1.50 to $2. And again when they went from $2.50 to $3. And, of course, we're hearing that as they move to $4. And yet the periodical continues to chug along.

Well, and that's precisely what's going to continue.

Of course periodicals won't go away. Of course the direct-sales market—barring a sudden Diamond implosion—will be around for years to come. As a system, it's perfect to reach the people that are already in it, and there are still a good number of them. Publishers would be stupid to abandon the comic-book system overnight.

So prices will continue to go up, and a lot of comic-book readers will continue to buy single issues anyway, no matter the price, because that's how they roll.

The thing is, whatever growth the future has in store for comics probably won't be happening to traditional comic books. That ship has well and truly sailed, and it's only going to get more wind in its sails in the next few years.

The thing about 1999 or 1989 was, there were no real alternatives to comic books.

The thing about 2009 is, there are a lot of alternatives now. Virtually every North American comics publisher has a comprehensive paperback and hardcover program. The move to digital formats has begun and won't stop—not to mention the illegal digital copies that are already out there and will continue to be made, downloaded and read in those formats. In 2019, those alternatives will have expanded dramatically.

Sorry, Brian Hibbs, but the notion that the periodical print-comics market will shrink by the end of the next decade is not a controversial statement anymore. If you want a statement that's controversial, I expect the direct market to be a very different place by 2015. It won't go away. There'll still be money in it. But it's not the future, and its time will keep running out—as it's been since the very moment the direct market was invented by Phil Seuling.

The direct-sales market was never more than a crutch, and the healing process is all but complete. From my perspective—which is that of an outsider, certainly—it's high time that comics retailers tried and start to walk, if they don't want to be left behind.

There's more discussion at The Beat, with commentary by numbers guru John Jackson Miller.

The key question seems to be: Is the periodical comics direct market an open system, or is it a closed system?

From where I'm standing, it seems to be the latter.

It may be true, as Miller says, that fewer comics are bringing in more money now, but eventually, without a significant influx of new people, that won't save the system.

Where are those hordes of comic-book craving people supposed to be coming from, all of a sudden?

o Speaking of the viability of print comic books, here's Kieron Gillen, writer and co-creator of Phonogram: The Singles Club, one of the most innovative and unique comics works of 2009:

Unless there’s a sudden pools windfall, [a third Phonogram miniseries] won’t be happening. [Artist and co-creator] Jamie [McKelvie] can’t try to live for a year on no money again. Hell, I wouldn’t want him to. The Direct Market Has Spoken. […]

Yeah, we’ve plans and thoughts and schemes and all that… but they’re tentative and far from certain.

And here's Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon, commenting on the cancellation of yet another well-reviewed Marvel series:

I hate to backseat drive companies because I’ve barely made like sixteen dimes from working in comic books, but at some point it seems that if well-regarded series after well-regarded series is broken on the rocks of a market that won’t respond to them, you should start to look at changing the game board to be more receptive to such series as opposed to picking up a game piece you think might work better.

Now, I hate to backseat-drive companies, too, because I've barely made like seven dimes from working in comic books, either, but it seems to me that Spurgeon has a point.

And I'm somehow very skeptical, at this juncture, that a thusly modified game board would still necessarily involve printed 22-page books shipped to comics retailers and sold to customers for $ 3.00 and more.

o On a totally unrelated note, why is Dark Horse publishing something titled Conan: The Frazetta Cover Series when it's going to be filled with (a) comics stories that (b) aren't even drawn by Frazetta? Huh.

o Staying with bare-chested adventure types, Brian Cronin's latest "Comic Book Legends Revealed" tells the fascinating tale of how Walter Simonson and Steven Grant teamed up to transform a Sal Buscema-drawn issue of Tarzan into an issue of Battlestar Galactica. Imagine that type of thing happening today.

1 comment:

kenny said...

I don't mind backseat driving the comic market because I have made a few dollars for the company (and thus industry) I work in. That's how business works. People either wade in and try plying their expertise at a new industry or they look in from the outside and make comments here or there.

But good article. I like your approach.
That being said, I think you're right that the direct market isn't going to go away - it would be foolish of Marvel and DC to give up on a dedicated base of buyers and this is an industry that thrives on nostalgia, including nostalgia for print. On the other hand, I think it's foolish to not accept that there is a market for digital comics and that market is being offered poor choices (at best). There will always be thieves looking to get something for nothing but fear of thievery isn't a good excuse not to offer a product customers are indicating they want. But I digress....

Direct market stores who ply their trade in superhero comics are being faced with a tougher and tougher reality - sure, some people want to buy printed, monthly serialized comics, but is it enough to keep the lights on? What else can they sell or how else can they engage their customers in the face of change?