It’s more or less common knowledge that the comics industry is, to an extent, floundering of late. Marvel’s sales, while steadier than they have been in recent years (for all I made fun of Civil War, it’s impossible to argue that it didn’t boost sales across the line and prop up multiple previously marginal titles – like Thunderbolts and Iron Man – into serious sellers), still aren’t anywhere near their heyday or even what they were five years ago. DC’s regular series sales are steadily dropping, and the only thing that until now has kept their overall sales profile even has been a series of Big Event miniseries – a strategy that relies on people actually liking and appreciating the Big Event in question, and it’s fairly safe to say that Countdown is at the least getting a mixed reception (and Amazons Attack is an out-and-out failure, not only failing to generate appropriate sales but also driving down sales on its tie-in books).
Now, as comics fans, we (I’m using the royal “we” here, but so what) want comics sales to be healthy so that more comics keep coming out on a regular basis, right? So it’s important to identify the major barriers to new sales. For comics, it’s pretty self-evident.
1.) Cost. Comics are frigging expensive. In terms of value-for-dollar, I don’t think there’s a less impressive ratio among entertainment products than comics – a 32-page comic (with 22 pages of story) costs three to four dollars, for crisssake. Assuming with tax your average comic costs $3.50, that’s almost fifteen cents per page. Compare to my copy of Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, for example, which cost $19.95 new (I mean, I bought it second-hand for eight bucks, but let’s give the comic book a CHANCE at least), and at 480 pages costs four cents a page brand new. Other folks have gone on at length about how much more cost-effective manga is on a per-page basis than “Western” comics, so I don’t feel the need to go there. (Besides, I don’t like manga.) A movie costs more, but it’s an immersive group experience and it probably lasts a lot longer than reading that one comic once does. I mean, I can finish a single issue in ten minutes – fifteen, tops, most of the time. But a movie lasts at least an hour and a half.
And this expense precludes people from reading them. In one of my previous posts one commenter (who I know in real life to have an actual good-paying job and everything, with no dependents) pointed out that buying comics was too expensive for him, let alone a kid looking for fun. Yes, books like Fell and Casanova and the like are an interesting way of combatting this trend – offering a slimmer comic at less cost – but they don’t solve the “whoa comics aren’t good value” issue at all in doing so. They’re just offering a smaller portion of the same expensive treat.
And so on and so forth. I don’t want to beat the dead horse here – comics are pricey, we all know it. Let’s move on.
2.) Inaccessibility. There’s two forms of inaccessibility to talk about here, and again neither of these is particularly new or amazing to anybody who knows comics. One is that comics – especially superhero comics, which for all intents and purposes are the dominant focus of the medium (and don’t start with me about how comics can be so much more, I know they can, but let’s be realistic and remember that the majority of the public hears “comics” and thinks of Batman and Wolverine) – are tangled up in their own continuity and new readers can’t follow the action. This isn’t an unfair comment to make, but it’s also worth remembering that intricate continuity can be an invitation rather than a detriment. It’s simply a matter of remembering to write comics with a bit of accessibility in mind, which isn’t hard. (If Tom DeFalco can do it, anybody can do it. No, that’s unfair to Tom DeFalco, really. But you get where I’m coming from.)
The other form of inaccessibility is point-of-sale. I’m not going to get into the “comic shops are sucky places” rant (although many of them can be), not least because in Toronto, comic stores tend to be friendly, accessible places – I’m thinking the Beguiling, Excalibur Comics, 1,000,001 Comics, Silver Snail, et cetera. I’ve been elsewhere and, yeah, Toronto’s kind of spoiled for excellent comic shops, but from related experiences via other folks I tend to think there are “good” comic shops just about everywhere. The problem isn’t that comic shops exist – the problem is that, other than one tiny rack at your chain bookstore, they’re the only place to physically go and buy comics.
To boot, the back-issue system is just stupid. Yes, a lot of stuff gets reprinted in collections, but not all of it. (For example, Starman had three or four issues that simply never got collected in the trades, to say nothing of the Shade miniseries which ended up being fairly important to the overall Starman storyline. And Starman was a successful series.) If somebody reads, say, the Star-Lord mini Marvel is publishing right now, and decides that they want to read some more about Bug – well, good luck trying to find back issues of Micronauts. When comics were a serial enterprise that didn’t much care about longterm development, this was fine, but reading patterns have shifted and now comics publishers want readers to stick around as long as possible. So why stick with a delivery system that’s so flawed in this respect?
On top of that, DC and Marvel – and especially smaller publishers like Dark Horse and Image – are pretty bad at keeping everything they publish as a collection in print. (I still can’t find copies of the final two X-Statix trades anywhere and I’ve been looking for over a year and a half at this point.) So we have a system where the only place to get the product is with independent dealers of varying quality and public appeal, and the product itself is inconsistent in availability. Gosh, and we wonder why comics don’t sell more.
(Of course, this is all compounded by the fact that DC and Marvel and everybody else have little choice but to solicit through Diamond Distribution to get their products out to independent shops, and even if they had a choice they probably wouldn’t take it.)
3.) So, how do we fix this? Well, “we” don’t, but there is a solution, I think.
Consider Girl Genius. The progression here reads like a “this is how you do it” fairy tale: Phil Foglio starts up an independent comic, is doing okay but could do better, then decides to give it away for free via the Web and just make money selling the collected books, rather than dealing with the expense of individual issues. And soon he is making a butt-ton more money, by his own declaration. (And of course there are plenty of other webcomics that have done the same thing without even bothering with single-issue releases: Penny Arcade obviously, but also Scary-Go-Round, Order of the Stick, and so on.)
Is the Girl Genius model workable across-the-board for all comics media? I don’t think it is, for a few reasons. Firstly, Girl Genius is an independent effort and the costs of producing single issues at a relatively low sales rate proved to be counterproductive. It’s a different story when you’re publishing a comic about Superman, one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world: the number of sales of single issues you can conceivably get is much higher and thus your publishing costs are lower because of volume. Secondly, major properties like those controlled by DC and Marvel don’t need free publicity in the same way that a stick-figure bard named Elan does. At the same time, however, a free delivery system can be of extreme use for introducing new readers into a series. If X issues of, say, Justice League of America or X-Men are online, it makes the decision of buying issue X+1 in the store much easier (and if the comic is good, also more likely).
So, my quick spitballed system for new-media comics delivery in conjunction with old distribution models is as follows. Let’s take Legion of Super-Heroes, because that’s a comic with an upcoming new-creative-team switch and a logical start point for new readers (issue #38).
A.) Put all issues of the current run of Legion online. For free. Immediately. At this point – considering it’s a lower-mid-level seller – it can use the additional exposure to a wider audience.
B.) When issue #40 comes out, put issue #38 online at a one-page-per-weekday rate. By the time the last page of #38 is posted online, #41 should be on sale at newsstands, and then you start putting up issue #39. Thus, the single issues still have a sales incentive for their purchase – not waiting around for a few months to read the newest part of the story. The three-month mark is about where most retailers start griping about how many unsold copies they have of (comic) anyway, so the sales impact of having it for free should be minimal.
C.) In conjunction with the free current run, offer up for-pay downloads of .cbr file older comics. You can do it on a per-issue basis (say, fifty cents to a buck, but nothing more than that), or in larger lots (“here is the entire first year of initial-reboot Legion and Legionnaires, 24 comics for only ten dollars!”), but either way, make the older stuff available in digital format. Use the free giveaway online comics to advertise the for-sale items in your “store.” This is quite simply a potential goldmine for both of the Big Two in particular.
D.) At some point, eclipse what’s available online. Say, I dunno, by issue #60 or so you start removing issues at the start of the run from free availability and put them into the payment-required section. (I think five years is about right for free online availability. I’m sure DC or Marvel might argue for less, but they’re wrong and I’m right so ha on them.)
E.) Trade paperbacks and collections will still exist, but now they’ll have to offer more than just the individual issues collected to maintain value. Luckily, it’s not like it’s hard to add additional value to trade paperbacks. Cover art’s already included in most of them – don’t put the covers online. Sketch art in the back of the book. Unfinished rough pages in the back of the book. Interviews with the creators about the creative process or similar. (Mark Waid’s essay/pitch on how he feels Fantastic Four should be written in the back of the first F4 hardcover is a wonderful read and makes me value the collection that much more.) For the Legion, Encyclopedia Galactica entries, or personal journal entries by the characters themselves. Articles and essays about the Legion by previous authors, noteworthy fans, et cetera – I mean, a certain subset of Joss Whedon fans will literally buy anything he writes about anything, so if Joss likes the Legion (I have no idea if he does), get him to write an article or an appreciation or a short story or something.
F.) Similarly, stuff of that sort should be in the single issues as well. Ed Brubaker is already doing this with Criminal, getting friends and colleagues to put extra material in his comic to make the single issues more of a value-add so that people don’t wait for the trade (where the extra material isn’t collected). I don’t think the division between single issues and the trade is as necessary in my scheme, but that’s debatable.
G.) Finally, allow comic shops to advertise for free on the Legion “webcomic” site via a searchable database of comics shops. Shops sign up with their information, and anybody searching for a place to buy real, tangible Legion books and comics and merch can find a place to do it.
That’s my proposal. I think it answers the basic issues of cost and accessibility fairly simply and not without a certain elegance, if I do say so myself. But I could of course be entirely wrong – so tell me one way or the other.