Essay: How To Save Comics

The current state of the comic book industry is….potentially exciting, but mostly puzzling.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression in writing this, so bear with me. I love comics. No, let me say that again. I really love comics. They’ve always been a huge part of my life, from Sunday paper strips to superhero stories to Japanese manga and zines. They’ve shaped my outlook, evolved my artwork, and created a network of irreplaceable friends in my life. I love the business of comics. I love the discussion and curation of comics. Nothing’s perfect, though, right? That’s what keeps us working toward the next goal, bettering ourselves and each other, and that is my intention in sharing these thoughts with you.

There’s a lot of intriguing new ideas presented to us in comics these days; the fact that independent publications are making their way up to holding a sizable chunk of the total comic book market is one such example, but even in your big-hitter Marvel and DC stories, you’re seeing classic characters settled into modern settings and new faces representing the next generation of readers. There’s new universes being discovered and married together, new villains being introduced in legendary comic titles, and there’s certainly no shortage of crossover events, tie-in books, and incentive variants. Well, those last three things are actually not that great. In fact, they’re the bane of comic retailers and sometimes collectors, so then why in the world are publishers and distributors actually pushing these marketing nightmares? This begs further questions towards very real problems with the industry; why are comic creators being forced off social media platforms because of death threats? Why is there such a demand for certain types of books with so little product to supply it? How can small businesses like comic shops survive during financial crises? With so much diversity and accessibility to comics, why is the industry struggling?

One of the challenges and prospects of the modern market is that we have readers of all ages and dispositions who are interested in comics. We can thank the success of Raimi’s Spider-Man kicking off a serious resurgence of interest, though the last decade’s worth of fandom is owed to the Marvel and DC’s cinematic universes duking it out in theaters, driving new readership towards the origins of those films. This invites people into the world of comic books that might have never even tried to crack one open before, and that includes a lot of younger bookworms looking to see both the classics that introduced the characters they love, and to find reflections of themselves in the heroes we love and the new ones we’re discovering. This new generation of comic readers is an active, progressive bunch, and sometimes that onslaught of change doesn’t sit well with everyone (you’ll hear a lot of bashing of ‘SJW’s, and we’ll get to that).

Fans who have been involved in the collecting community and have been following comics since a young age (most typically from the Silver Age and forward), have come to expect a certain consistency in the books and characters they love, and with very few exceptions, many of those titular heroes have really gone off the rails from who they were to evolve into what Marvel or DC thinks people might want to read. There’s a lot of young readers out there who really dig the new directions, but the numbers produced in sales are not really showing that across the board, only at select shops with the right surrounding demographic. So first, you have a struggle between generations of readers, but you also have the battle of telling stories that writers want to tell versus pandering to what fans tell you they want to see happen. That’s a muddy discussion for another time, but suffice it to say there’s a lot of indecision and uncertainty in what steps should be taken by publishers, and a lot of argument between older and younger readers in what should be involved in new stories. The only things publishers seem to feel they can try are things they’ve done before that worked as at least temporary solutions, but not thinking in the long-term is what seriously harmed the industry before. So what do they do? What do WE do, as readers? As shop employees? What are our roles as fans?

How do you remedy such a tricky situation when so much of artist, writer, and reader’s experiences are subjective?

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1.) Marvel and DC need to focus.

Up until their recent announcement of ‘Fresh Start’ titles, a reboot announced merely six months after their LAST reboot, Marvel has been floundering. Their selection of titles was so unnecessarily large that it literally couldn’t fit within the usual shelf containment of most shop layouts without serious re-arranging. And that might be a good thing if all those books had a.) the sales numbers or even the requested demand to back their existence and b.) a solid plot involved, or simply put, a good reason to create those series in the first place.

While Marvel rides out the struggle of lack of direction, DC has created quite a large line of books that have readers excited and intrigued (both new titles with new heroes and solid ongoing series with A-listers). Things should be hunky-dory, but where they fall short is delivery, time and time again. Countless DC books, both major event series and new ongoing titles, have been delayed, some for a few weeks, others for months, and in a modern market, that is astoundingly unacceptable. I love well known artists and writers like many readers follow these days, but it’s become increasingly obvious that these guys either bite off more than they can chew (and maybe they need to, depending how they’re compensated for their work, which would again be a different discussion), or they literally are just letting the ball drop because they know their fame will ‘excuse’ it.

For whatever purpose these things are happening, they need to be remedied, like, yesterday, if they expect to hook and keep new readership or bring back old fans. Let’s look at the good in these guys for a moment: titles like Batman by Tom King or Mighty Thor by Jason Aaron are some of the highest subscribed books, consistently picked up by walk-in’s and regulars, and why is that? Because the content is quality-assured. The creative teams behind these books care about those characters and their legacy, regardless of how new or old they are fictionally speaking. Why can’t we seem to apply that more broadly, then? There’s enough creative talent out there, both writers and artists, that would love a job with Marvel or DC, that could really nail down some new, amazing stories that would fit perfectly with their characters. There’s been some fresh names brought into the mix over time, but there’s so much reliance on household industry names like Waid or Snyder or Capullo to hold up a crumbling ceiling, when we could be reinforcing everything with a deeper bench of new players, creating new household names, ensuring a future group of new readers that follow these creators—you get where I’m going.

Focus on solid titles for your insta-sellers like Spider-Man or Superman, and pepper the selection with mini-series, projects of love, like Tom King’s ‘Mister Miracle’ (as long as I live I will never shut up about that series, seriously). There just needs to be more to rely on than utterly exhausting Brian Michael Bendis or Jim Cheung.

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2.) Publishers need to listen to market demands.

I can’t tell you how many times in the past year of being manager at a comic shop that I’ve had parents come in, with or for their kids, seeking comics for early readers. These are people I know, solid customers who are happy to spend whatever scratch it takes to encourage their kid’s interests in reading, and yet, I have so little to offer them. It’s the worst feeling for me, to struggle to find a book for someone because barely any exist.

While it’s half the job of a comic retailer to sell their wares in an effective way, it is also half the responsibility of a publisher to meet demand retailers report to them, and the inquiry level for kids comics is VERY high right now. Every year, shop owners attend retailer summits and open forums with major distributors and publication houses, begging for the things they need and criticizing the things that wreck the market, and while many of the requests are the same among the masses, these demands are not filled or at times, even attempted.

This summer will be an interesting time for all readers because Marvel and DC are finally testing the waters again for kid’s books. Independent publishers have been ALL OVER that for some time now (such as Lion Forge, IDW and Boom Studios), reaping the benefits, but sorry to say, these kids will always be asking for their well-known superheroes as well. And really, it isn’t terribly difficult to put together fun, effective kid’s comics with superheroes involved (AvX: Babies, anyone?).

It’s also important to include in this point that we should reach out to classic readers on why they should come back to check out new books, but again, that requires the titles to do so. Right now, there are indeed a handful of excellent books scattered mostly through DC and independent publishers, but when someone says they really miss reading ‘Captain America’ before he ran off on space adventures or future-jump re-hashings, I simply don’t have anything to offer them. I thought I might this year with Waid’s new run, which was solicited as a road trip across the states to reclaim the honor of his title and reconnect with Americans of all kinds….only for it to turn into another ‘oh, he’s frozen and wakes up in the future’ kind of story. It didn’t even turn out to be that bad a run, but to turn around on what it was supposed to be within three issues? Not a great start to inspiring confidence in returning readers.

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3.) Comic Book marketing needs an upgrade.

Okay, so with the internet, we’ve done a little bit of this point already with social media presence across multiple platforms, but it’s clear that something about this business model isn’t doing what it needs to. In 2017, a giant list of comic shops closed up shop, including titans of the industry who have been neighborhood staples for thirty odd years. By luck and careful budgeting, those of us who remain open for business have to find more innovative ways to share these books with people and really, just let them know our shop and our books exist.

But once again, the responsibility of effectively selling these comics also has to fall on the publishers pushing them to wider markets. They already make creators announce and discuss their projects at conventions and online, but it seems to be making them skimp on explaining to readers just how ordering comics works when many titles are sold out even before their release date with waits of a month or so for additional printings, especially because they have the easy out of ‘go digital’. Just like the general book market, there will always be a demand for physical products, and comic publishers and distributors need to understand that and work on tweaking their business models to encourage those sales. Retailers have to do this day to day to survive, so why shouldn’t that load be shared among all the major players of the industry? If we ask publishers and distributors to please knock off that nonsense with lenticular covers, or the requirement to order way more product than any individual shop can realistically sell to even qualify for special merchandise, then there should be an involved discussion about it, and a remedy from the conclusion.

As it stands right now, it is almost entirely the responsibility of the retailer to garner any interest in new comics, and boy, do we have our work cut out for us. Most comics are solicited either on a distributor web page or in the ‘Previews’ magazine (which happens to be published by the monopoly of comic distribution, Diamond), which are a mess-of-an-archive of HUNDREDS of books and toys and other related merchandise. Maybe I like to flip through catalogs, but not everyone wants to spend an evening going through four hundred pages of advertising to maybe find a book or two for their kids, or even for themselves to read. There needs to be a more realistic way to advertise these things in a concise, varietal way.

This summer, once again, will be an interesting time for comics as not only are new titles coming out, but new preview publications are coming out from Marvel and DC that showcase ONLY their works, free handouts for customers to get into something new or find a story arc to jump in on. (Dang, I’m really going to need to do a follow up to this article, huh?)

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4.) Fans need to calm down a little.

With the evolution of the internet and its ability to allow us immediate interaction with individuals and businesses alike, there’s been a rise in what some call ‘fan entitlement’, an unfortunate mindset that’s reached out and really soured the connection between comic fans, creators, and publishers. But let me be clear about one thing, which I’ve mentioned earlier: ‘SJW’s (or, social justice warriors) get blamed with much of this, but trust me, this has been a long, suffering issue far before the resurgence of feminist activism. There’s also comic fans on the opposite end of the political spectrum who are just as hostile towards other readers or creators of comic content for being too inclusive or ‘politically correct’. Let’s address both these groups briefly:

For the former: The writers and artists can’t control things like making Captain America canonically bisexual (no matter how much I am with you on this), they can’t decide to kill off Peter Parker so that Miles Morales becomes the single, titular Spider-Man and Marvel won’t just ignore lifelong fans and customers because they have conservative viewpoints, even if radical in nature. That’s not how any of this works. Marvel is a business first and foremost, a HUGE one at that, and they will never turn away a dollar, whether they see it as corrupt or not, or whether a progressive group does or not. As for questionable event story lines, like ‘Secret Empire’, the publishers have distinct profiles that they maintain of their characters, and only they decide what someone is allowed to try or not do with said characters, even if they pick something that seems pretty foolish to a lot of readership. As a fan, I definitively lump myself in with the left-lean of social activists and feminists without shame for what I believe in, but there has to be realism applied to idealism sometimes. As much as I would love to take the reigns on some of these properties myself to change up the status quo of comic stories and what they can represent, not just anyone can do that effectively, even if they have good intentions.

Change instead comes from larger, encompassing action, like speaking with your wallet, like coming together to reach out to publishers about representation of characters and creators that work on these titles, and a diversity of genre in their stories. Getting too specific with a character won’t grab them, but presenting a grander theme to share in comics just might. Shoot them e-mails, fill out their feedback surveys, present questions to them at convention panels, and so on. But don’t attack others, don’t buy and burn comics you disagree with the content of, and if you care about these comics and characters, don’t just give in and leave it behind you forever. Maybe take a break from them instead, spend your money on the titles and creators that you feel deserve your support. Keep trying to share your thoughts. Maybe the big-hitters won’t take every suggestion, and maybe it takes some time to convince them of doing something they should, but what good do we accomplish by not offering our suggestions as fans at all?

For the latter: I often reference the Star Wars franchise when speaking about the change of the tides and the evolution of new generations of fans. Original trilogy fans make quite a fuss about ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’ because it’s not ‘their Star Wars’. It’s not familiar to them, it’s not what they grew up loving. This is applied in the exact same way to comic books with popular characters: they read a current run of Thor and say it’s not ‘their Thor’. And maybe with specific characters, that’s something to take heed of; the recent return to a more ‘classic’ Superman has helped to bolster his sales, leading up to a very convenient release of Action Comics #1000. But ultimately, my response to the not-MY-‘insert famous property title’ argument is that the very entitlement they accuse others of when they ask for more characters of color, more heroines, and so on, they are exercising themselves by asking or expecting a franchise to release new content, but have it remain the same, over and over again. That’s called ‘beating a dead horse’, and it’s an even more certain death to the industry than trying some diversification.

There comes a moment when one must even begrudgingly accept that big markets like varying forms of literature, toys and collectibles, and the film industry are going to change over time. Even our ancient philosophers of centuries gone by had something to complain about the direction of science, critical thinking, the role of women in society, and so on. There are things that we all do now because it is considered a societal norm, that our good old ancestors would faint at the thought or sight of. Times change, and so the media of that time must also change. Again, I don’t mean to say that this should be all encompassing and that there should not be content made available within comics that caters to many different sorts of readers, people of all dispositions. In fact, I think it’s incredibly important to have that diversity within the market, to have stories that pay homage to their origin comics, lest we forget our own history! But if the market swings progressive, if new characters were born of a demand for representation and they hold their own (I’ll again reference the Mighty Thor, because boy were people mad about a female Thor for a while and hers is consistently a now top-selling comic), then they must be allowed their space on the shelves.

(Also, if weird trolls on both sides could calm down and not threaten people’s lives over stupid story ideas or changes, that’d be great, too.)

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5.) Customers and retailers need to relate.

It sucks that there’s some leg work needed to make comic subscription services happen, but as the system sits, things are a little convoluted for both retailers and customers to get into new comics. Because of that, and until that goes through a much-needed overhaul, consumers and shops need to create an effective understanding with one another, being both precise in laying out how the comic collecting market operates versus just comic reading, and then show empathy to sustain a healthy consumer-business relationship.

Comic shops offer subscription programs as a way for readers to get instant and ongoing access to their favorite weekly and monthly titles, usually with discounts and other benefits attached. This means that a lot of what we order in terms of product is specifically for those customers, and we order it without taking any kind of pre-payment. Other book shops do that with their own product too, though, so why are comic shops a different animal?

Well, while other shops get the option to return most unsold merchandise for future product credit or freight credit, comic shops are stuck with probably 95% of what they buy, much of it being difficult to sell because of its periodical nature. Very few items are allowed to be returned, for credit or otherwise, and so that creates a new obstacle that businesses have to tread through to try and stay successful. What should we order that we think will sell well, because we can’t return it? What’s too little and what’s too much to buy of an individual product? We have customers that want variant cover comics, but to make those few customers happy, we’d have to spend a LOT of money meeting prerequisites to even be eligible for those variants, and so on. There’s so many things to think about each month when placing our final orders for product, and the biggest factor that helps us with those decisions is consistent consumers. We rely on return customers like neighborhood regulars and walk-in’s like any small business, but in a more weighted way, we rely on our subscribers coming in to pick up the product that we order for them, so we know to continue getting more of ‘this’ or less of ‘that’.

Of course, customers are people, and people have lives, they have emergencies that come up or rough financial times, so shops will more often than not try to work with those customers to create a workable schedule for picking up any backlog of items set aside for them. The balance needs to be struck that creates a comfort cushion in case of emergencies, but also the knowledge that small businesses simply can’t afford to act on charity for too many people or for too long. Each store will have different policies in place, and trust me, it’s not to make a consumer’s life difficult, it’s for them to literally stay afloat so they’re around for you to come back to when things turn around. Comic shops are truly community staples, especially as pop culture leans heavily into superhero culture as the default, so the more feedback, interaction, and business that we receive from customers on a regular basis, the more effectively we can decide on product to carry or invest in as new stories hit the market.

 

The short end of all that text is this:

1.) Market-leading publishers need to step up their game and focus on creating some quality content, especially with fan-favorite characters.
2.) Publishers and distributors need to take what they hear from retailers and consumers and apply that information to their practices.
3.) Marketing teams at major publishers need to get with the times and update their strategies to bring old fans back and encourage new readership.
4.) Fandom trolls are drowning out some potentially good feedback from readers by acting crazy towards comic creators and each other.
5.) Comic shops are struggling, but if we can find a way to work with our customers, we can keep business going.

I know this has been a wall of text worth of ideas, but honestly, all the condensed articles I’ve read present good, but broad points without much explanation as to why that should matter so much to changing the state of the industry. You have to get into the deep of it sometimes and you need to have detailed plans to get initiatives kick-started that can overhaul the system.

Things are already changing; as I mentioned, there’s finally some work being done by Marvel and DC after a rough 2017 to address some of the current issues of the market, and indie books are really booming. I feel strongly that working together with these initiatives and matching rhythm between consumers and small businesses will help to bring in a new, successful year for comics, and hopefully ongoing, lasting reward for wading through the mud of uncertainty.

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