Save Comics.

25 Jul
By Darryl Ayo

Comics can never die, so they can’t be in need of saving. This article is specifically about the North American comic book paradigm, particularly as created for, and distributed by, the Direct Market. Before you read further, I have no qualifications. I am just a person with a laptop.

Creative problems with comic books:

A. The art:

Just kidding. The problems in mainstream North American Direct Market comic books (from here on, “comic books” for short. Spare me) on the visual front are so plentiful that they deserve their own post. But the short version is that I don’t have nearly as low an opinion of the general level of draftsmanship or storytelling on mainstream comic books as many of my indie comics comrades do. I try to accept mainstream comics at face value, or as close to face value, as I can. If I like the art in a comic, I’ll investigate further, if I don’t, I won’t. There are entire books written on the subject and I am of the opinion that while the art in mainstream comic books is often problematic, these problems are nothing compared to the flaws in writing, publishing and distribution.

B. The writing:

1. Mainstream comic books are serial fiction, but are treated as though they are less serial than they are.

Reading many mainstream comic books is akin to watching a feature-length Hollywood movie in YouTube clips. Ten minutes at a time over the course of two or more hours. And where the hell is Part 5 of 8? Oh no, why can’t I find it, daaaaaammit!

My theory is simple: all stories should be allowed to exist in a space that fits them. If you’ve got a 200-page story, it should be published in a 200-page book. If you are commissioned to write 20-page stories for magazine serialization (ie, the initial publishing format of these comic books), then you should be writing stories that are satisfying and whole at 20 pages. Even stories that continue into future installments ought to have enough of an internal plot arc to be understandable and entertaining when set alone.

2. In writing these 20-page comic magazines, the writer must be willing treat every issue as though it is important by itself. The writer must be willing to allow that every issue might be a person’s first issue. I am a notorious comic-jumper. Every time I walk into my regular comic store, I allow that I might try out something that I am unaccustomed to. For far too long, comics have been written and published with the assumption that if a person is interested in this particular title, that person will (or must) board at the appropriate time. Nonsense, to me. Every Wednesday is an opportunity for casual readers like me to potentially hop in. The casual browsing reader is not a myth. Even in this day of fifteen-part multiple-title crossovers, there are comic readers who decide “today is the day that I am interested enough in [Comic Title X] to try out an issue.”

3. Not every Direct Market comic book series is in the superhero genre. However, those that ARE superheroes have a unique set of problems to deal with. Problems such as writers who would rather be working in some other genre. As I cast my accusatory glare toward Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, who are more interested in spies, crime or science-fiction than in licensed cartoon characters punching each other. Listen up and listen good: superhero comics aren’t worthwhile unless the superheroes have problems that they can solve with their fists. Also, it is useless to publish an issue of a superhero comic in which the character doesn’t get to do at least some obligatory fighting. I like parts of Fraction’s INVINCIBLE IRON MAN or Brubaker’s CAPTAIN AMERICA, but is it really that hard to dispense with the yakkity yakking and get some action?

4. Might be covered by number 1…but to put a magnifying glass on the issue:

SOMETHING.

MUST.

HAPPEN.

IN.

EVERY.

SINGLE.

ISSUE.

After reading an issue of a serial comic book, I should be able to describe it to a friend as “in this one, [character] goes and does [action].” In some of these dang things, one issue happens, and then the next issue happens, and the story hasn’t advanced any further than when the story started. That is ridiculous. That’s not “writing,” that’s not “story,” that’s “walking in place.”

5. The concept of “shared universes” is ridiculous from a writing perspective. The emphasis on creating interplay between characters simply because they are owned by the same corporate parent doesn’t do anything besides weaken what is unique about each of those characters. The Silver Surfer flies alone.

6. One remark about art work for this post: The covers. The cover of a comic should indicate its contents. The cover should be striking, or ask a question or point to an incongruity or mystery. Entice me. Seduce me. Tempt me, lure me. I am already in a comic store, but maybe I’m an X-Men fan. Put something on the cover of your Superman comic that makes me go “wait a minute, what’s THAT about?” Draw me in. Tell me a story.

 

Publishing problems with comic books:

The main publishing problem with comic books is that the primary Direct Market publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics seem dimly aware that some of their intellectual properties are popular, so their plan is to essentially “make more of that.”

I always liked the lyric from GZA/Genius “there’s no need for us to spray up the scene/I use less men, more powerful shit for my team.” What Marvel and DC do is divide their own sales. DC’s biggest competitor, for instance isn’t Marvel Comics, it’s…themselves. Their biggest-selling property is Batman, but the sales of Batman comics cannibalize other Batman comics. And also there are too many Batman comics. If there is one Batman, and DC superhero comics exist in a shared universe, how is this Batman supposed to be accomplishing all of these feats? Batman should just be one series, written by the top writer that DC can hire (because he is their top property) and they would rake in the Bat-dollars. Same thing for rising star Green Lantern. Green Lantern is DC Comics’ second-best selling property. So DC should have their second-best writer writing the one and only Green Lantern comic. And Superman. And Wonder Woman. And Flash. And so on. And so forth. Don’t divide your own market, thinking that you’re giving the fans options. All you end up doing is confusing the potential readers. It takes a greater confidence to put the entirety of your confidence behind a single title than to hedge your bets and try to be “all things for all people.”

I used DC as an example back there, but the same thing goes for Marvel. One X-Men, one Avengers, please. One Wolverine, for god’s sake.

 

Distribution problems with comic books:

I’ve got nothing to say about the effectiveness of the Direct Market. At least not today. I do have a thing or two to say about Digital Comics, though. And I’m not the only one. We live in an age in which there is a digital purchase option for prose books, movies and especially music. However the comic book digital problems seem to leave this field stuck in the mud.

Anyway, let me drag out my rusted, dull-from-use longsword and take another stab at this:

1. Digital comics should be easy to buy. They should be just as easy to buy as digital music is. With industry leader, Comixology, they more or less are easy to buy.

2. Digital comics should be inexpensive. This blog recommends a 99-cent price point for issues of digital comics, the same forgettable amount of money that allowed iTunes to soar to the top of the digital song game. The current “normal” price for digital comics is $1.99. Given that comic books are meant to be short-form entertainment, an entertainment that people tend to consume by multiples, that price is too high for an immaterial purchase. Anyway, two dollars is the price. That price is supported by frequent 99-cent sales that the major publishers offer on a weekly basis. Marvel Comics, in particular usually has two 99-cent sales per week, indicating that even the publishers know that the 1.99 price point isn’t driving purchases.

Let’s be reality: the 2.99 to 3.99 price of printed comic is based on physical media. There are trees to be cut and processed into paper, printers to be prepped and print runs to pay for. There are storage facilities, shipping/delivery costs and so on and so on. In digital comics, those costs are reduced to zero because they are only dealing with the master version of the art which is then placed in a system where it is able to be distributed by the press of a button.

3. Digital comics should be universal. They should be owned by the purchaser. When you download a song from iTunes, you get a file. When you download a comic from Comixology, you get permission to access a a file. It feels like ownership on the surface, but the file/access doesn’t work outside of Comixology’s interface, which is pretty slow, even on the newest of iPhones. That’s pretty problematic.

4. Digital comics libraries should be complete. The comic publishers are sitting on decades worth of material and making it available on Comixology, at random. It is completely arbitrary, in fact. DC and Marvel should have entire departments dedicated to preparing comic books from their libraries for purchase on Comixology. People will buy them. I will buy them. This is free money, all they have to do is lay it out there, and digital buyers will buy. It isn’t as though they are paying for a print run or anything. They own the files and master art. I happen to know first-hand that prepping pages for Comixology isn’t exactly the most difficult job in the world. What’s the goddamn hold up?

5. Digital comics should be available right away. They call it “day and date” in the comics industry. There is no logical reason why one audience should wait an unspecified period of time before being able to read a given comic book. Driving print sales is asinine. I’ll say it again:

WITHHOLDING DIGITAL SALES IN ORDER TO ENCOURAGE PRINT SALES IS FUCKING STUPID.

If a customer is a digital customer, then he or she is a digital customer. That person isn’t going to say “gee, I’d better find a comic book shop near me and buy that issue in paper form,” no, that customer is simply going to lose interest. Some of these customers live very far from comic book shops. Some of them don’t like the comic shops in their area. Some simply do not lead a lifestyle in which owning a bunch of slim magazines is a welcome prospect. Some have no strong preference either way! The point is, if you want to make any money (and the comic book publishers are, if nothing else, in the business of making money) then you’ve got to fully encourage all of your revenue streams.

Ideas like only making certain “hot” titles available on day-and-date, for the same price as print are ridiculous, insulting and counter-productive. The nature of digital entertainment is that it is immaterial. All customers know that there are physical material costs associated with putting out a paper book, a paper magazine, a CD, a DVD…and they know that those particular costs simply do not exist in the digital equivalents. The publishers are attempting not to undercut their primary market (Direct Market–comic book shops), but in the process they are giving off the appearance that they think digital customers are completely stupid.

DC Comics’ plan is specifically strange: their books, starting in September, will be all available day-and-date for the same price as the paper equivalents….and then dropped down a dollar after a month’s time. This tactic further undercuts any already-flimsy argument that there are necessary costs inherent to the digital process and just points a big bright arrow at the fact that the current digital plan is something of a scam.

 

Time to wrap this up:

As I said, I’m not an expert. I am not an industry insider or any of that stuff. I am a man who wants to buy some comic books and finds that doing so is a lot more work than it ought to be. In order to keep this thing on track, I’ve kept my arguments focused primarily on the big two comic companies. Dark Horse, IDW, Image, Viz all have different sets of concerns, some are the same as those above, some not. I hope that the mainstream comic book business can do better.

Thank you.

 

7 Responses to “Save Comics.”

  1. BearSprite July 25, 2011 at 11:44 pm #

    This article is should be in gold. I am not a purchaser in comics. I read a couple of comic books growing up, was fascinated by them, enjoyed them immensely, but have always been too cheap and/or poor to purchase a new book every month when I am only going to read it once. Temporary access (a library), and disposable mediums (a computer file) are wonderful things to me.

    A couple of years ago I got introduced to webcomics. This is what I have always dreamed of. I now follow well over a hundred comics, and happily donate what I can to as many as have donate buttons. A year ago I considered getting into ordinary comics. What have the X-Men been up to since friends talked about them in my childhood? The Justice League? What other treasures have I been missing out on?

    I’ve picked up a few free comics since. It frightens me to see what I consider to be incredibly low quality of work. The art is of higher quality than webcomics (in that a lot more work generally goes into it, not necessarily talent), but the lack of a story within any one issue, the complaints I hear about continuity inconsistencies and resets, and the requirement of reading the last 200 issues to fully understand (or at least appreciate) the plot… These are all excellent reasons never to pay for a comic before reading it.

    I am not alone. Many, many people prefer the webcomic format. So much so that many, many webcomic artists do so professionally. To demonstrate the absurd level of success that webcomics can have, Tarol Hunt, author and artist of the webcomic Goblins, has had a number of “fund raising” drives called Tempts Fate (the name of the main character), wherein he will write up a comedic adventure on the side, and when a certain amount of funds have been donated to his own account. he draws the next bit of the strip. The money is goes to support the financial burdens of being an artist. Some of them have included a percentage sent to actual charities. He feels horribly guilty, like he’s taking his readers hostage, but they aren’t paying for the main comic (technically), just this side bit of fun. The money goes to help pay for his home, feed and clothe him, his future wife/colourist and kids, and other basic necessities. His latest Tempts Fate, the 11th one, has a completion goal of $30 000 (possibly Canadian). He admits feeling very guilty about setting the bar that high. I believe he will reach that goal. I also want him to reach that goal, and will be donating money. He is an excellent artist, he produces quality work, and people can access it for free. I want him to be able to produce this work, am willing to pay for having enjoyed it, and hope he can live a successful life working on it. I am actually not so certain that he doesn’t have a day job, but he certainly makes a fair bit of money from the donations.

    By comparison, if I were to start reading Batman, I would have to invest the money before liking it. Granted, Tarol Hunt depends not only on more of an honour system, nay, the charity of his readers, but because that option is available to me, and hundreds of webcomics are out there for me to enjoy, I don’t have any reason to risk my money. Even on $1.99 and issue.

    • darrylayo August 28, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      I like webcomics a whole lot.

      From a comic creator standpoint, I like being able to offer something for free, as a loss-leader.

      As a reader, I like to be able to jump into something without any risk (ie, spending money or taking up space in my apartment). On a whole, webcomics are wonderful.

      From a business standpoint, the money earned in webcomics seems too thin to make it a viable business-replacement for North American Direct Market comic books.

      ON a special Batman-related note, I just checked out a few issues of Batman Incorporated and found them accessible and readable without any more setup than “Batman is traveling the world in order to recruit new Batmans.” Surprisingly, DC does not offer this series–possibly their most accessible series from their most popular current writer–in their digital store. Of course, words fail to articulate how disappointed yet unsurprised I am by that.

  2. ian July 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    All of these points make a lot of sense! I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a DC or Marvel comic, online or otherwise, but your analysis rings true with my outsider’s perspective.

    However, RE: pricing, I’m not sure I agree with your point here:

    “The current “normal” price for digital comics is $1.99. Given that comic books are meant to be short-form entertainment, an entertainment that people tend to consume by multiples, that price is too high for an immaterial purchase. […] the 2.99 to 3.99 price of printed comic is based on physical media. There are trees to be cut and processed into paper, printers to be prepped and print runs to pay for. There are storage facilities, shipping/delivery costs and so on and so on. In digital comics, those costs are reduced to zero because they are only dealing with the master version of the art which is then placed in a system where it is able to be distributed by the press of a button.”

    Any price point is also based on what it takes to actually produce that “master version of the art”: the time & effort spent by writers, artists, editors, etc. Now, it’s possible that digital distribution w/no printing costs + comics at 1/3 or 1/4 of the print price will yield an increased volume of sales that more than makes up for what is probably a slimmer profit margin. But then again, maybe not.

    On this topic, I think it’s worth having a look at “The 0.99 Problem”, by game developer Adam Atomic: http://blog.semisecretsoftware.com/the-099-problem

    His article is in reference to game development for Apple’s App Store, and not digital comics, but the takeaway is interesting and possibly relevant: for game devs, pricing your game at $0.99 is like trying to shoot the moon: you *must* have that low a price point to get into the top tier of sales (which would be massively profitable), but if you don’t actually make it into the top 10 bestsellers, you’re going to wind up not being able to support yourself as a developer. Raising the price to $1.99 or even $2.99 as he did, the much more likely outcome of a moderate (or, let’s face it, anything but blockbuster) success will still put bread on the table. But! You have to make sure that the game actually feels like it’s worth that much.

    I’m guessing the perspective of an indie game dev is of somewhat limited significance when considering DC/Marvel online sales, but the fact that Adam Atomic could profitably sell a remarkably simple game for $2.99 (Canabalt, if you’re wondering: http://www.adamatomic.com/canabalt/) in a market saturated with $0.99 games seems important. What makes that game worth $2.99 instead of $0.99? And, by analogy, what would make a digital comic worth $1.99 instead of $0.99?

    And I think that is basically what the rest of your article is addressing: there are a lot of factors that you identify that make Marvel & DC online (and print) comics just feel like they just aren’t worth it. When I browse through the print versions of their comics in comic shops, I balk at the $2.99-$3.99 prices. Sure, they’re sleek and glossy, but I can tell that I would read a lot of these issues in all of 5 minutes, and I wouldn’t get a sense of having read anything significant because nothing really happens in the issue, or something *does* happen but I need the context of the previous 200 issues to really “get” it, or any of the other points you brought up.

    For me, the most salient point in your post is that the publishers are undermining the apparent value of their own product by spreading it so thin, not just across issues in a single series, but across multiple series. It seems like they have a choice of either continuing to produce a torrent of thin product and pricing it much more cheaply, OR culling their production lines down to a few well-written, quality series in which each issue feel substantial and satisfying and *worth* the 4 bucks on the stands or the 2 bucks online. As to which they should choose, I’ll pay more for quality. I won’t pay anything for no quality.

    Sorry that went on a bit long, but I liked your post and felt it deserved a, um, substantial reply :D

    • darrylayo August 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

      Long replies are appreciated, Ian. You’ve said a lot of good things that are totally worth investigating.

      The big issue with price that I always want to bring up is that at this point in history. DC and Marvel comics offered digitally are totally found money. The work is paid for by the print system. Three years ago, before ComiXology, the comics were 2.99. Today, they comics are still 2.99. The digital market doesn’t have any compelling reason to cost what it does because it’s not the lifeblood of the publishers.

      Were digital to supplant print sales some day, then production of material would be considered a factor in price. But today, all they’re doing is making the files which they already own available through the ComiXology service. ComiXology gets a cut and Apple gets a cut, but it’s a cut of found money.

      I want to give a special note saying that I don’t often sit down to play games even though I like them a whole lot. But the game on Adam Atomic’s site is wonderful, thank you for linking it. I’m an iPhone user and this is just the sort of silliness that I could use.

  3. Colin Tedford July 27, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    On serial installments that can stand alone: During the main period of my life that I bought floppies (my childhood – so really, had them bought for me), I was entirely a casual reader. I didn’t follow any series, I just picked out something that looked good on that trip to the newsstand. Because you could do that then! Granted my requirements weren’t very high, but with rare exceptions I could enjoy any given on its own. I always ignored those editor’s notes linking to other issues.

    Do they still do those editors’ notes? If so, do they make them actual hyperlinks in the digital versions?

    I’ve been fitfully interested in publishing digital comics (the kind you’re talking about, not webcomics, which I do already), but whenever I peek in, the scene (formats, etc.) just doesn’t seem stable enough yet to bother. Regardless, if things haven’t settled down by the time I revamp the shop on my website, I’m just going to start hawking PDFs and see what happens.

    • darrylayo July 27, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

      Hey Colin!

      As far as I know, there’s no more little asterisk editor’s notes! Instead, there’s the first-page info dump. PREVIOUSLY: ON COMIX CUBE…

      As for digital download comics: I am not a fan of PDF’s for a handful of reasons: most importantly because they’re difficult to access on iPhone, by my last understanding. Apart from that, they’re a bit too tangible as files and can potentially take up a bunch of space.

      I have a buddy who might be reading this blog who has a comic that’s digitally available on every conceivable platform or format. She re-formats each issue for the many and various ways that different customers may prefer to purchase. A lot of legwork, but it seems to be working for that project!

      • Colin Tedford July 27, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

        What format do you like?

        What do you mean about the “tangible” issue (or is that the same as taking up space)? Do comics PDFs tend to be larger than other formats? I’d imagine the main thing pushing up file size would be the image files it contains or is based on, but I don’t know much about the various formats.

        Do you have a link for your buddy? I’d love to see what’s on offer.

        (Also, why is the sky blue, can i have an ice cream, why not, etc. etc.)

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