It is clear to anyone who is watching the marketing and business practices of comic books here in the U.S. (except, apparently, to those folks actually running the three or four major companies) that if the industry is to survive at all, there needs to be a very major paradigm shift in the way comics are presented, marketed, and distributed to the public at large.
Sure, sure, ultimately we are talking print vs. digital, but even the actual distribution methodology and final production methods themselves are secondary, for if comics can’t hang on to and/or make an effort to actually attempt to rebuild its swiftly deserting, and disillusioned audience, it will never survive the coming decade.
While this may sound overly dramatic, and even somewhat pre-apocalyptic, it really isn’t. To be sure, even though comic book characters and themes are experiencing a new resurgence in virtually every media save for its native form. Even this renewed interest in the art form won’t save the actual medium of comics from an untimely (and undeserved) premature end.
In the past couple of years not only have several of the top-grossing movies been comic book-based (Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, Batman), but quite a number of niche and critically acclaimed Indie comics have made the jump from the printed page to the silver screen as well (A History of Violence, The Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night). Video games have also long drawn on comics for subject matter; comic books have even made a resurgence on TV of late (Walking Dead, Heroes, No Ordinary Family, Big Bang Theory).
And (as the commercials say) “that’s not all!” The comic book talent pool has been swelled by writers from other fields. Of late it seems that comic book companies have been tripping over themselves in their desire to hire film and TV writers to script their comics (J. Michael Straczynski, Jeph Loeb, Kevin Smith, Reginald Hudlin).
Yet even given the heightened awareness of comics, the pedigree of the talent pool, and the buzz-worthiness of the material itself, still the print runs of the books are dropping, like a proverbially stone, and the audience itself is shrinking faster than can be tracked. So, for whatever reason, comics just can’t seem to hang onto its ever-aging, and constantly disenfranchised audience.
To be sure, comic book publishers have tried to do the things they know how to do, only those things just wind up being more of the same — hire name writers, fan fav artists, licensing hot properties, stage “stunt” events, and issue variant and/or limited-edition comics or covers. Then they try to tap into whatever trend is hot this week: vampires, zombies, superheroes, mutants, dragons, robots, whatever; and churn out as many titles as humanly possible in this week’s “it” genre with no regard to flooding the market. Hence, if Monolith Comics Press has a big-budget movie starring their iconic Zombie, Vampire Cowboy-Merc coming out, look for the company to push out as many Zombie, Vampire Cowboy-Merc titles as they can find writers and artists to populate.
It somehow doesn’t matter if there are only 10,000 Zombie, Vampire Cowboy-Merc fans out there, and that by doubling and tripling the number of Zombie, Vampire Cowboy-Merc comics won’t so much ramp up the total number of books sold, but further divide the total number of books sold among how much money the already existing fans can possibly spend. (I once worked at a local festival that brought in one of those big carnival slides. The wait time for the 30-second ride was close to half an hour. The following year the guy brought in two giant slides. He didn’t double his money, he cut the wait time in half while only increasing his income by about 10%.)
The point being that twice as much product doesn’t necessarily mean twice as much income,
Yet — and this is the part that has always baffled me — the comic book companies almost never advertise or promote their product outside of their own field. Let me just let that sink in for a minute or two. Comic book companies rarely advertise or promote their comics outside of comic book publications. Yes, yes, action figures, video games, T-shirts, games, DVDs, movies and other licensed items that are based on the comic book characters themselves are advertised for and sold in non-comic markets, but the comic books themselves primarily pitch themselves to a comic book-buying audience in comic book-themed publications.
Think about that for a bit, and I’ll come back with how silly and self-destructive this behavior is and what comic book companies can (and should) do to fix this industry-ending, self-fulfilling prophetic problem.
In Part 2 of this essay, comic book historian and self-proclaimed “Heroist” Robert J. Sodaro details how comic books can avert what can only be certain doom at its own hands.