Robot 6

The Fifth Color | Comic books can never die

What if this... was it?

I had a dream last night that comic books were dead. It wasn’t a bullet or a ray gun that killed them; it was just economics and a general shift of popular culture. The bottom dropped out of the New 52 and DC couldn’t regain lost readers. Marvel moved out to Los Angeles, and their publishing arm waned after relentless budget cuts and eventually dwindled down to nothing. Robert Kirkman had a huge lawsuit over rights and appropriations, and he left to go work on movies and television, taking a lot of young hopefuls with him. Popular titles got sold off like police auctions, and creators left comics for the greener and more lucrative pastures of other media. Less comics came out every week, leaving comic shops to stock up on action figures or Magic cards, eventually phasing out their back issue stock and relegating comics to a small corner of the store. Eventually, comics just disappeared entirely.

After the massive, colossal hit that is Marvel’s The Avengers, there’s a lot of buzz in the air about what comes next. What will be the next property to hit the big screen? Will it tie into the new movie continuity? Will Joss direct the next Avengers installment? Even on my way into the theater for the midnight showing of the Avengers movie, I had friends trying to tell me what the next “obvious” sequel was going to be. With as much success as Marvel Studios has seen this year and others, the doors are wide open for all sorts of properties to find fresh new life in a whole new medium. But none of this brave new frontier of pop culture seems to really involve the actual comics medium. So let’s talk about it.

I would have gone with a John Romita Jr. poster

Perfect example: I had a guy come into my store yesterday, a college-aged guy fresh out of the movie theater and super excited. He asked us if we had any Avengers movie posters; I told him no, but! We did have some really awesome Avengers posters from the comics. He considered the box art for the new Wizkids miniature game, shrugged his shoulders and left without a single glance at the comics display we had set up. He had no interest in the comics that the movie came from, the original artwork or the legacy that brought those heroes to these incredible lucrative heights; he just wanted the movie version and without it, he walked on. Out of the millions of dollars the Avengers movie has made (and will continue to make through the summer), will comic shops see a fraction of it? Again, only my estimation, but we had our best movie-to-comics interest gain after the first Iron Man movie, when Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s new first issue hit around the same time as the film. I’m not saying we sold it like gangbusters, but there was a surge of interest in the character who had until then been the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., an instrumental force in Civil War and well, kind of a tool. Robert Downey Jr. made being a jerk look cool, and we sold a few more issues of the new series on character recognition. Fraction and Larocca did the rest to keep people entertained.

But that’s not really the best example, either. While Invincible Iron Man sold a few more copies and gained a few more readers from the new movie’s take on the character, if we really want to talk about success, we have to talk about The Walking Dead. The TV show has helped sell scads of trade paperbacks and hardcovers, as fans of the show are eager for more in the dry months between seasons. Demand has been overwhelming for Walking Dead trades, and I’ve had some customers who come in daily to grab a book and get their fix. Here’s the rub: Our ravenous zombie fans who jump the hurdle of accepting the story in another medium want everything, and there are only so many trades. Hungry readers want to know when the next Walking Dead Compendium is coming out. When I have to explain that it’ll probably be out after the 100th issue comes out in July, then the immediacy is gone. Without their fix, the Walking Dead junkie will have to wait, and waiting doesn’t mean they’re going to pick up a new issue of Superman.

The more comics hit big among the mainstream and attract more and more of a casual audience, how we view comics as a whole changes. The fifth color I tried to name this column after, the reader’s own viewpoint that colors the work presented on the page, washes out some. The fan niche market doesn’t need to be courted in order to make money, the product does that all by itself. Star Trek had to go through something similar; despite the die-hard fan base, the movie reboot has changed the way people look at Gene Roddenberry’s view of the future. It may never be again what it once was.

That’s not an entirely negative statement; as a fan of science-fiction and the X-Men, change can be good! Evolving to a new… something, whatever it is, doesn’t diminish what came before, it can finally let it breathe. People who thrilled to Zachary Quinto as Spock can go back and watch Leonard Nimoy in the same role and gain more for venturing into (by them) undiscovered country.

There is a show called Top Gear, aimed at car fanboys, that I get to watch on BBC America from time to time. I don’t drive nor will I ever own some of the crazy expensive cars they show off, but I love their enthusiasm and the outlook on their own particular fandom. On an episode that talks about “the most important car in a hundred years,” the Honda FCX Clarity, they take it on a drive around Los Angeles (which is the only place the hydrogen-fueled car is available). They list off its features and advancements with a resigned sort of wonder. When explaining the inner workings, even the cameraman would rather pan to some girls on the beach than accept the strange new world this car represents. It’s not an exciting car, but it does present a greener and more responsible future. Then they talk to Jay Leno.

Jay Leno is a rabid fan of the classic car, gas guzzlers and all. Rather than hating the newfangled machine that makes a mockery of the hard-hitting engines he has stored in a personal display, Leno believes that these cars of the future might be the saviors of his gas-guzzling favorites.

“Car enthusiasts that think ‘Aw, this is going to be awful’ no it won’t. It’ll save the petrol, it’ll save your MG or your Sprite or your Midget or whatever you have. Then you go out on your weekend and you have fun, and then you can put this in the car park during the week. Much like the automobile was the savior of the horse, you know… in the cities, at least in America, horses would be whipped and they’d drop dead … and then when the car came along, it freed up the horse to be used for recreational purposes, and just the beauty of the animal or whatever you want to call it and I think these type of cars will be the savior of our sports cars, our MGs, Porches, things like that.”

Fantastic Four #1 with Frame

For example

What if comics weren’t the only way to see Spider-Man, but were universally known as the best way? What if the first issue of the Fantastic Four hung as a museum exhibit and Jack Kirby was treated with all the respect and reverence that Jackson Pollock, Rembrandt or even Da Vinci receive by folks besides comic fans? What if comic shops were luxury stops like an ice cream store? Sure, you can get Dreyer’s in a gallon at the grocery store, but isn’t it more special to go somewhere that’ll serve it to you in scoops?

Modern comics are evolving thanks to their success in broader media than we as comic fans are used to. Maybe more than we’re comfortable with. But that won’t mean the death of the industry. It won’t even mean the death of the Big Two publishers. It will however mean a change, and that’s a lot harder to predict than the future of a hydrogen car or even the sequel to a blockbuster movie.

In my dream, I called Matt Fraction (because I’ll only have him on speed dial in my dreams, folks). I told him about my woes, how sad I was that comics had died and how much I missed the way things used to be. Because this is my dream, Mr. Fraction listened patiently and wanted to know if he could call me back. A friend of his had dropped out on a project with him and he wanted to get my input on it. And then I woke up.

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Comments

14 Comments

Wow, your dream could be 10 years away. I think rising printing costs are going to destroy the comic book industry, but digital will still have a long life ahead.

SilverHammerMan

May 11, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Frankly, comic book shops are already luxury shops, modern prices have made it near impossible to regard them as anything else.
Anyhoo, I think that comic books will never die, but they will have to evolve.
One: decompression must die. I’ve gone on about it at length on other sites, but to me it boils down to the fact that a new reader can’t just pick up and read part 4 of 6 of a saga that’s been built up to for the better part of a year. Yeah, “breather issues” and Marvel’s .1′s are both great, but they shouldn’t be a once in a while thing, they should be the norm. Writers today have gotten lazy in a way I think; Why come up with 4 individual stories when you could drag out 1 for 4 issues?
Two: Prices need to go down. Seriously. I know that printing costs have gone up, and I for one would be interested to see an actual breakdown of the costs related to getting a book onto the stands in terms of how much it costs to print, ship, etc. But at some point the publishers are going to have to realize that you can’t charge 3-4 dollars for what amounts to maybe 15 minutes of entertainment depending on how fast you read. If cutting costs mean that we have to go back to non-glossy pages I’ll gladly take that.
Three: Go digital in a big way. They’re getting better with this lately, but they need to go further. FIrst of all, why are their not cheap collections of classic comics not available? That stuff is great, is generally extremely easy to get into in terms of being light on continuity, and has wide market appeal. Beyond that though, I would suggest that comics need to go (almost) entirely digital: Just as a vague outline I would see books being published in a subscription based online format that gives free access to couple of series and their archives for free but charges a subscription to get access to more titles. These webcomics would have to be strucked differently of course because it you’re ready a webcomic for 4 months to get through a single story you’re going to get sick of it, but at if they were available quickly and easily via say, a Facebook app, I could see a lot of readers checking out the free titles and possibly buying the others. Then these comics could be reprinted in quarterly digests that could be sold in comic book shop, which would themselves have to undergo a major transformation, but it that’s what has to happen, it has to happen.
Four: No more stunts. Seriously. Yeah, we get it Marvel and DC, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Civil War were both just dandy, but you’ve been trying to replicate them for the past decade. It’s been almost continuous, with one crossover ending only for the next one to be hyped. It’s stupid. Yeah it’s cool to see your favorite heroes duke it out (Marvel) or take on a massive cosmic threat (DC) but it gets tiring if it’s practically all the do. Can’t the Flash just foil a bank heist in an issue instead of getting swept up in an 8 month Eartnh-shattering crossover?
Anyway. Yeah. Comics need to evolve. Direly.
Evolve or die. As they say.

I think the magazine format of comics is something that will pass in time, with more and more comics released in the digital format, and then re-released as collective trades.

For the writers that like to write the large, decompressed stories, why not just go straight to graphic novel format rather than drage out the story across a dozen or so single issues.

The risk these days of trade waiting for your favourite books, is that if the single issues aren’t being ordered and bought, then the series gets wrapped up and cancelled in short order.

Reading digital comics sux balls……

Paper is REALITY

I agree with SilverHammerMan…enough of the events, and their tie-ins.

I wonder what the over-under is on whether comics die out (along the lines of Carla’s dream, at any rate) first, or whether American football dies out first. Maybe neither, but it’s curious that we have people making plausible speculation about the extinction of both, lately.

Meanwhile, regarding the non-convert movie-fan: “He had no interest in the comics that the movie came from, the original artwork or the legacy that brought those heroes to these incredible lucrative heights; he just wanted the movie version and without it, he walked on.” I can’t say I entirely blame the guy. I like comics, and have lots of them, including lots of comics featuring the superhero characters of so many recent films. Haven’t seen a single one of them, though, and have no plans to.

SilverHammerMan – I’m pretty sure the main reason comics cost as much as they do has nothing at all to do with paper or printing. It’s because now they actually PAY THE TALENT. Some even get healthcare! Just go read some of the sad stories on http://heroinitiative.org and then tell me comics cost too much. These creators deserve a decent wage.

Larry: The Hero Initiative does great work, and I don’t think you can pay creators enough, but regardless of how we get to that point, the standard pamphlet is still $4.00 for 20 pages of story.

I like supporting good comics. I like supporting the creators of the good comics. But as a consumer of entertainment, that is a horrible deal. I trade-wait for a lot of books these days… not because of any fan procrastination or anything like that, but just because I don’t have a ton of money to spend on entertainment and collected editions are much better deal.

sandwich eater

May 12, 2012 at 11:00 am

That was an oddly detailed and specific dream.

Superhero movies just don’t increase interest in comics. In fact when a movie is based on a book does it really make people read the book? I think it does now because books and movies are marketed together and sometimes the movie deal is done before the book isn’t even completely written. However, it wasn’t always like this. Did the movie Jurassic Park drive interest in the book? I loved that movie as a kid but I didn’t read the books until 2 years ago. Did Jaws make people read the book it was based on?

I really think that they should be giving away free digital comics codes in the DVDs of superhero movies and the video games. A good percentage of the buyers will give it a chance because it’s free; and if they give a really good issue they might even want more. I think it’s strange when the Mass Effect 2 and 3 collector’s editions come with the first issue of the tie-in comic, but Batman Arkham Asylum and Arkham city don’t come with free comic books.

The thing is, even if all those things that you mentioned in the first paragraph come to pass, we’d still have guys like Michael DeForge and Dash Shaw and Alison Beschdel making comics, and since the last couple volumes of One Piece had over a million first prints each, it doesn’t seem likely that manga will stop being published any times soon. And we’re not even taking webcomics into account, either, or fan-made stuff like those Batman stories Ulises Farinas and Joshua Hall Simmons made a couple of years ago. “Comics” might die, but comics, the art of comics, is unkillable.

SilverHammerMan

May 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm

sandwich eater
I’m with you on the free comics thing. It’s been done before I think, but never particularly well, I mean, people usually get a couple issues of whatever the latest mediocre run is, what they should be doing is giving a complete, quality arc that is actually likely to hook people, like if say the Man of Steel movie came with All-Star Superman, or the Dark Knight Rises came with The Fark Knight Returns.
And I was actually legitimately confused by the Arkham game releases. I mean, I could understand not packaging Grant Morrison Arkham Asylum book with the Arkham ASylum game, because it’s a bit strange, but Arkham City had ACTUAL TIE-IN COMICS. Yet they didn’t include these comics in the game at all, not even in the Special Edition. I bewildered me, it was a golden opportunity to get comics into the hands of an audience that was at least friendly to the idea of Batman the character, and yet they let it pass by. Further evidence in my eyes that the publisher haven’t got a damn clue what they’re doing anymore.

“Did the movie Jurassic Park drive interest in the book? I loved that movie as a kid but I didn’t read the books until 2 years ago. Did Jaws make people read the book it was based on?”

Yes they did – they sold a massive amount of novels. Jaws sold an extra 15 million copies of the book after the film was released in 1974. I myself hadn’t even heard of the Jurrassic Park novel until after the film opened and filled the shops with the novels but I bought the book and several other Chrichton novels – I assume I wasn’t the only one. The HBO Games of Thrones TV series has also created a huge sales increase in the books – copies of all the novels are everywhere and being snapped up in huge quantities.

But they’re novels – they have, on average, anywhere between 350 – 1,000 pages, and for about ten bucks are a lot more “value for money,” than three comics that equate to the same price for 60 pages of entertainment. Novels are identified as Adult Entertainment – there is no associated embarrassment (unless it’s Mills and Boon, or a Star Trek/ Wars, Warhammer novel.) And believe what you will, comics are still laughed at by 99% of the community. We love the Big Bang Theory – but we’re laughing AT THEM, definitely not WITH THEM. No one out there goes, “Man I really want to be like Leonard or Sheldon!!” Superhero comics are stil laughed at by 99% of the community. It’s silly spandex, capes, big tits and muscles – it’s embarrassing.

This is why the success of a superhero film does not increase the success/ sales of the comic book it’s based upon. The people buying Avengers comics are already comic readers/ buyers and have either picked them up as an additional title, or dropped a book in favour of it. All those people lining up to see the film are willing to wear the Avengers t-shirt (in a similar “It’s so kitschy it’s cool like Spongebob” fashion) but they’re not interested in the comic books they believe are written for their 5 yr old brother. Superhero movies are a lot more respectable than superhero comics – that’s a fact.

Avengers success will impact little on comic sales from people outside of the comics community.

The future of the comic book industry will be:

80% of comics will be digital – they will target the majority of young adult readers who want the flexibility and don’t care about the collectibility.

20% of comics will be paper – they will be more expensive and will cater for longtime comic readers/ collectors like me. These comics will either be distributed directly to the consumer via subscription, but also a handful of LCS will still exist (but eventually will morph into an amalgamation of Warhammer/ Card Games/ Collectibles stores – the LCS will not exist as it does today)

The tradepaperback market will flourish and exist in mainstream book stores like Dymocks, Angus & Robertson, but even those stores will eventually die out and be replaced by online stores like Amazon etc. Even so, most readers, if they want something to hold on to in their hands, will likely purchase the tradepaperback than a 22 pg comic.

This is true.

Zomburai – I trade/HC wait for all new stuff too. I still buy comics in 32 page format for the 60-80′s stuff I am collecting.

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