Is the goal for comics to become a mainstream form of entertainment an unattainable goal? That seemed to be the angle Tom Spurgeon took on Monday’s Deconstructing Comics podcast and in his additional commentary at The Comics Reporter. He feels the industry is better served by regaining a few hundred thousand more devoted readers to restore unit sales to mid-six-figure levels. While comics have shown there is longevity in niche markets, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of also attaining a larger readership.
With March’s estimated direct market sales figures showing yet another double-digit month of growth, manga publishers giving anecdotal reports of the manga market stabilizing, and something of a convention boom going on, there’s no better time than now to re-examine how comics can secure a healthy and vibrant future. Taking advantage of this growth is tricky because, as Spurgeon mentions, no one is exactly sure why the turnaround happened. Although people complain about DC Comics’ New 52 being a mess and Marvel crossovers not having the punch of the Civil War days, overall sales are rebounding. Was it digital comics? Was it the mainstream press for the New 52 or Marvel NOW, or some other stunt? Is it the Hollywood movies?
For as long as I’ve been following the comics industry I’ve heard creators say things along the lines of, “I’m not in it for the money,” and, “I’d be doing this even if I wasn’t getting paid.” Those are statements of passion that drive deep into the heart of a conversation that’s receiving more and more attention lately, and not just in comics. The question that’s been raised is: Should creators have to make comics for free just because they would? And if so, for how long?
When an unknown writer or artist is trying to make a name for herself in the comics industry, one way of doing that is to create work for free. Give away a webcomic. Contribute to an anthology that won’t make any money but may get seen by the right people (especially if you put it into their hands). Work for a small publisher who only pays if the project makes a profit. These are all accepted practices. What’s going on lately, however, is that people are starting to question how accepted they should be.
In response to that line of questioning, defenders of the current system argue from tradition. Alexis C. Madrigal, senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote a long piece on the realities of digital journalism and why it’s often tough to pay journalists anything, much less a fair wage. His basic argument is that funds are limited, even for a digital magazine that’s doing pretty well. “The economics of our business are terrible in some ways,” he writes. “And like everything else, the worst of it falls on the workers, the people making the widgets, doing the journalism, making the beds. The money gets sucked upwards and the work gets pushed down.” He continues, “[E]ven when you have a generous owner who is not trying to make a gazillion dollars and skim the cream, this game is still really, really hard. You still have limited funds. You still can’t pay freelancers a living wage.”
Activate cartwheels. The North American comics industry has crawled out of the hole it’s been in to raise estimated profits of $715 million, the best it’s been since 1993 or 1994, according to cautiously optimistic numbers analyst John Jackson Miller.
But hold on. We haven’t quite recovered from the mid-’90s crash quite yet.
While a number of sites are running with the two-decade comparison, it’s not quite as clear cut, or as celebratory as it might suggest.
Miller himself notes the ’93 and ’94 figures aren’t adjusted for inflation, and he added an update to his original post that went into this more. “The most frequently cited figure for sales in 1993, the market’s all-time peak, is $850 million,” he writes. “That amounts to an inflation-adjusted $1.35 million, nearly double the size of the current market.” Once you add in increased cover prices and other factors, Miller notes, “we’re still quite a lot behind the early 1990s in adjusted dollars.”
Miller also briefly touches on something I’ve long thought, that to truly measure the health of the industry, we should be making more comparisons based on units, not dollars. Sure, it’s awesome to make money, and I realize it’s pretty standard in business to focus on the dollars, but just looking at a stack of money doesn’t really tell the whole story of how that money came to be. How many people are putting money into the industry? The most accurate way to do it would be to know how many eyeballs are reading each issue, but that would probably break some privacy laws or get into 1984 territory. So knowing how many copies are sold is the next best thing. This information is available for more recent sales records, but whenever we get to these year-end analyses or compare year-to-year figures, we usually focus on the dollar amount. But by just considering inflation alone, that’s just not an accurate gauge.
Publishing | This wrap-up of the third annual India Comic Con, which drew an estimated 50,000 attendees (up from 15,000 last year), doubles as a snapshot of that country’s $22 million comics industry. The growth of the market is attributed in large part to the rise of graphic novels, which are luring young-adult readers. [The Times of India]
Comics | Writing for The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky weighs in on the backlash over DC Comics hiring Orson Scott Card in an article titled “The Real Reason to Fear a Homophobe Writing a Superman Comic”: “It’s disturbing to have Orson Scott Card writing Superman, then, in part because Superman is supergood, and the supergood shouldn’t hate gay people. But it’s also disturbing, perhaps, because Superman is a violent vigilante — and because violent vigilantism in the name of good is often directed not against injustice, but against the powerless.” [The Atlantic]
Taking into account the Bookscan figures supplied last week by CBR columnist Brian Hibbs, numbers-cruncher John Jackson Miller estimates that print sales in North America of comic books and graphic novels reached $715 million in 2012, a high not seen since 1993 or 1994.
Miller breaks down his math, so there’s no great mystery as to how he arrived at that number: Bookscan tracks about 75 percent of bookstore sales. Add to that the rest of the book market, direct market sales of periodicals and graphic novels, and newsstand estimates, and voila. He acknowledges it’s a little rough, and doesn’t take into account graphic novel sales to libraries (or, clearly, the digital and U.K. markets); there’s also the big caveat, the rate of inflation that would put those 1993-1994 sales at about $1.1 billion in 2012.
Stills, it provides a fascinating snapshot of the state of the North American comics market last year, which grew by about $35 million from 2011.
Jackson also singles out another interesting number: “For what I think may be the first time in years, the Direct Market’s graphic novel dollar orders exceeded the value of the Bookscan orders (but not the entire mass market). I attribute it at least in part to the huge traffic in Walking Dead trades: comics shops ordered at least 74,000 copies of the first volume in 2012, versus 38,000 copies through Bookscan’s retailers. That’s a big difference.”
“[T]hey broke my spirit,” Don Rosa wrote in an epilogue to his autobiography in comics, explaining why he retired from the job he so dearly loved. The whole tale is heart-breaking but also beautiful in the cartoonist’s abundant gratitude and humility.
“They” of course are Disney and its publishing licensees who don’t pay their comics talent any royalties whatsoever despite the incredibly healthy exporting of Disney comic books around the world. Rosa created Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics for almost 20 years and only ever received a flat page rate, as though it were the 1940s. His rate was better than other Disney comics artists at the time because he was so popular, but his wife was still the primary provider for the family. She was a school teacher, a profession not typically known for financial excess.
Whenever I hear about these kinds of stories, I always wonder why the creator doesn’t turn to creator-owned comics, which allow freedom on many levels, and a greater potential for financial benefit. The Walking Dead, anyone? Rosa, the internationally beloved cartoonist, doing his own comic book series or graphic novel would be an event. It seems like a no-brainer. But it’s easy to forget that for some creators, despite the opportunities, that option is a non-starter.
Faced with the growing backlash over its decision to hire sci-fi author and vocal gay-rights opponent Orson Scott Card to contribute to its new Adventures of Superman anthology, DC Comics has issued a response that may do little to satisfy critics.
In a statement released to The Advocate and Fox News Radio, the publisher said, “As content creators we steadfastly support freedom of expression, however the personal views of individuals associated with DC Comics are just that — personal views — and not those of the company itself.”
Best known for his award-winning 1985 novel Ender’s Game, Card has become notorious for his writings over the past decade on homosexuality and his outspoken opposition to marriage equality. A board member of the National Organization for Marriage, a group dedicated to the opposition of same-sex marriage, Card in 2008 endorsed the overthrow of the government following rulings by “dictator-judges” upholding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
Legal | Forbes profiles Michael Wolk, a lawyer who’s organized the financial backing for Stan Lee Media’s prolonged, and so far unsuccessful, multibillion-dollar lawsuits against Marvel and Disney over the rights to the characters co-created by Stan Lee. Wolk’s primary investor is Elliott Management, one the nation’s largest hedge funds. SLM, which is no longer affiliated with its co-founder and namesake, asserts Lee didn’t properly assign ownership of the works to Marvel, and that Disney didn’t file its Marvel agreement with the U.S. Copyright Office. “We are in the right here,” says Wolk, who’s not actually a Stan Lee Media shareholder. “No court has ever addressed or ever decided who is the owner of the characters — all of the prior litigation got dismissed for reasons that have nothing to do with who owns the characters.” [Forbes.com, via The Beat]
Today’s official announcement comes less than two months after NBCUniversal and Esquire magazine owner Hearst Corporation closed a deal to move the focus of the network away from young male gamers to “today’s modern men.” G4 pulled the plug in December on its flagship series Attack of the Show! and X-Play, leaving the channel without any original studio programming.
Debuting with the launch of G4 in 2005, Attack of the Show! featured Blair Butler’s “Fresh Ink” segments, which featured comic reviews and occasional publishing announcements from Marvel. The series also broadcast live each year from Comic-Con International.
According to this morning’s announcement, “Esquire Network will expand on G4’s foundation of games, gear and gadgets to reflect the broad range of interests, passions and aspirations that define men today.” While the new channel will tackle gaming and technology, like its namesake magazine, program categories also will include entertainment, travel, food, fashion, women and more with a mixture of scripted and unscripted series, and movies and specials.
Among the shows on the lineup are original series Knife Fight, hosted by Top Chef winner Ilan Hall and executive produced by Drew Barrymore, and The Getaway, executive produced by Anthony Bordain, the return of American Ninja Warrior, and syndicated runs of NBC’s Parks and Recreation and Starz’s Party Down.
Publishing | Comics sales were up 22 percent in the direct market over January 2012, and graphic novels increased by nearly 38 percent. This good news is tempered a bit by the fact there were five Wednesdays in this January (or 25 percent more Wednesdays, if you want to look at it that way), but that fifth week is usually a quiet one for new releases, so I think we can call this a win. The retail news and analysis site ICv2 credits Marvel NOW! and a strong backlist for the boost. [ICv2]
Publishing | Dark Horse’s video-game art book The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia last week was the No. 1 book in the United States, according to Nielsen BookScan — not merely in the graphic novel category, but in any category. The initial print run was 400,000 copies. (Comic Book Resources interviewed the book’s editor Patrick Thorpe last month.) [ICv2]
Don Rosa, who drew Disney’s Scrooge McDuck and Donald Duck comics for many years has written a lengthy and fascinating piece on why he gave up creating comics.
Rosa, who started working on the series in early middle age, gave up making comics entirely in 2012 for a variety of reasons, including vision problems caused by a detached retina, depression, and frustration that the studio pays no royalties on his comics — a situation that he says is unique to the comics, as other Disney creators do get royalties. (One possible reason for this is that the Disney comics are produced by freelancers working for third-party companies, not for Disney itself.) That became particularly galling once Rosa was well enough known that the collections featured his name in the title — but he still didn’t see a dime. His response was a clever one: He copyrighted his name so publishers would have to ask his permission to use it to promote the books.
Rosa also explains why he didn’t make the switch to creator-owned comics:
With Black History Month here, a piece by Joseph Hughes on the `lack of black writers at Marvel and DC Comics has received justifiable attention. It’s an issue that deserves as serious a consideration as the recent arguments for female creators, and it’s something that can really be applied to every minority. Diversity strengthens comics: It brings new voices, new ideas, new perspectives. And seeing that ethnic and cultural diversity reflected within the fictional universes of superhero comics can be life-changing.
I grew up white in Whitesville, an insular community in a small northeastern Massachusetts town. I didn’t know a single non-white person until I went to a new school in fourth grade — and then I knew one non-white person. I still remember the bullying he received; I’d never seen it in real life. My first day there, during gym class, I thought they must be kidding but they weren’t. I don’t remember any teachers ever standing up against it. Sure, they would chastise the general rowdiness but not the racially-specific name calling he got. And when the poor kid would finally lash out, flailing within a sea of ugliness, he would be swiftly escorted out of the classroom. Class would resume without him, pretending his outburst wasn’t the most emotionally honest reaction one could have in that kind of environment. He was written up, sent home, I’m not sure. I was the shy new kid, I had no idea how to respond to it. By junior high, he had vanished. For about the first decade and a half of my life, that was my real-world experience with “diversity.”
Comics | A Columbus, Ohio, entertainment weekly lays out a case for the city — home of Jeff Smith, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo — becoming, like Portland, Oregon, a hub for comic books. “Comics in Columbus is a weird underground, sort of hip-hop thing,” indie publisher Victor Dandridge Jr. says. “We’re like hip-hop in the Bronx in ’79, just on the corner doing our thing.” [Columbus Alive]
Conventions | Bart Beaty files a final report on this year’s Angouleme International Comics Festival, and his verdict is … meh. “There was a consensus all around that the show was flat. People would throw around adjectives like “fine,” “good,” and “okay.” It wasn’t a disaster (as were some of the shows disrupted by construction), but it also wasn’t that memorable either” [The Comics Reporter]
Publishing| Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso talks about bringing more Latino characters — and more diversity in general — to the Marvel lineup: “People out there reading our comic books are of all sizes, creeds and colors and it’s our responsibility to make them feel included. This isn’t some PC initiative, this is capitalism. This is about supply and demand.” [Fox News Latino]
Creators | Grant Morrison discusses winding up his run on Action Comics: “Symbolically I’m not a big fan of dealing with politics in superhero comics because I think it diminishes both sides of the argument, but I do have my own take on things. I’ve got my own politics and so they do tend to find their way in. And really for me, its more symbolic, the way story winds up to tackle all those issues and looks at them through the perspective of Superman and Red Kryptonite and weirdness. So it’s gone underground. I think the early Superman was very much more aligned with the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian current, because I think when Superman started out that he was what entered into.” [Comics Alliance]
“I don’t think Marvel or DC are racist, systemically, nor do I think that anyone there is, either. I am friends with lots of people at both companies and to a person, they’re terrific. Ultimately, people will hire the people that they know and in order to get to know them, you need access to them. I got my access through my day job as a magazine editor in Manhattan. Plus, I’m a dazzling urbanite. But if you’re a black kid living in Detroit or Tampa or Oakland, how do you get that access? How do you know which convention is the best for meeting editors? How do you know which bar to go to?
More importantly, if you’re that black kid (or Hispanic kid or woman of any color) why do you even want to make comics? The end product of decades of stories not told for a diverse audience is this: if the stories are not for you, you won’t read them; and if you don’t read them, why would you want to make them?”
– Marc Bernardin, who has written such comics as Static Shock,
The Authority and Wolverine, reflecting on the current discussion about the lack of black writers at Marvel and DC