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:
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.