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Living in the Plastic Age
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for July 23, 2007
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)


There's news to report, but what really seems to have been the big story last week is the fact that everyone is depressed now. The announcement that Cold Cut Distribution, the last survivor save Diamond (and maybe Last Gasp — I'm not sure how much the latter's network really crosses paths with Diamond, then or now) of the 1990s distributor wars, was going up for sale left Tom Spurgeon uncharacteristically dour about the state of the industry:

The thing that's odd about the story to me is that it seems to me line another downbeat comics story where no one is surprised by some crappy circumstance, and yet you look at Direct Market sales figures from 2002 and compare to them to now, or you just look at some ICv2.com year-end articles, or you spend some time talking to people, and it's clear that the DM is in a growth period. Shouldn't there be business opportunities in a growth period instead of wheezing, scale-downs and closures? What is it about the shape of that comics market where a boom period is felt more through articles claiming "This is a boom period!" than it is in the wallets of creators and retailers?

Canadian retailer Christopher Butcher sounded an off note as well:

[...] Are these sorts of things growing pains? Is Cold Cut just a hold out from the dawn of the DM to be replaced by technologically-advanced bookstore distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor? Or is there something much more substantial wrong with the industry right now where we're selling more comics than we have in a long time, and some organisations seemingly can't (or don't want to) make a go of it? I wish I knew.

A day later, Spurge returned to the subject:

After the period in which people died in riots and political protests related to a series of cartoons, and before a potential radical shift at media companies that could hasten certain depressing trends in editorial cartooning and newspaper strips, I would suggest the story of right now is the ongoing comics and graphic novel boom, and, particularly, the nature of that boom and extent to which it benefits not publishers, entertainment company board members, Hollywood agents, or even an editorial class, but creative and retail communities.

My basic thesis is that despite measurable gains in the specialty Direct Market, the emergence of a traditional book market and even signs of a rapidly developing on-line market, a lot of the celebrated growth isn't wholly reflected in a beneficial way where it deserves to go most: the creators who make the comics, and those on the front lines of putting them into people's hands.

The same piece also included a follow-up message from SLG publisher Dan Vado:

[...] I have never seen the stratification of the industry as bad as it is right now. While, historically speaking, the business has always been dominated by the top two companies, there always seemed to be something of an audience left for everyone else. The comics business in general and the direct market in particular seems to have become a zero sum game, where gains on one side result in losses on another. One thing which I think is killing the direct market is a combination of non-returnability of unsold product and a dangerous reliance on pull-lists and the Diamond Previews. As it stands right now the retailer eats what he doesn't sell and has no incentive to take chances or even attempt to attract a wider and more diverse audience. The client base seems to be expected to always order out of this giant, ugly catalog two to three months in advance based on not much other than general listings and sample smaller than a postage stamp. We aren't really in a boom time, it's just that our standards of success have become lower as our expectations have been driven further and further into the dirt.

Top Shelf co-owner Brett Warnock chimed in:

[... I] have to admit to being somewhat cynical about all the hoopla and hype that the new graphic novel model in the book trade, coupled with a "healthier" direct market are indicators of stability across the board. When in fact my experience would seem to indicate that the glut of Marvel and DC titles currently flooding the market, as well as an overabundance of weak comics everywhere else has created a situation where it's really very difficult to get much support from the retail community for indy comics, except for only the biggest A-List books in a given season. (And certainly not entirely via the fault of the retailers themselves, what with non-returnable sales [in the direct market] understandably inhibiting a willingness to take risks on new titles, creators, or publishers.)

Heidi MacDonald looks at the facts before stepping lightly over Marvel and DC's culpability:

Indeed, there is a product glut. Although there is more good stuff than ever and more good people working steadily, I don’t envy Rick Retailer going through the Diamond catalog every month and deciding how many copies to order. Our eyes glaze over by the companies that begin with "Ae" — having to plow on through would be unbearable.

Yeah, doesn't it suck when retailers take too many chances with independents? It's not like the existence of World War Hulk: Frontline is any kind of symptom, or anything. Anyway, with all this kindling laying around, it was only a matter of time before someone — say, Suck.com co-founder turned Los Angeles Times Web editor for its editorial page Tim Cavanaugh — came along to add gasoline to the mix:

The problem for traditional comic books is how little they matter in pop-culture terms. Diamond's biggest-ticket items are (except in drawing style) a world removed from the Japanese and Japanese-influenced manga books that are providing the industry's most substantial growth—and more importantly are selling well among the next generation of comics readers. If it's striking how many movies are based on comic book properties these days, it's even more striking how few of those properties were minted within the last decade or so.

A favorite sport of industry watchers is figuring out just how the form went from being something youthful and dynamic to becoming something fearful, risk-averse and cramped. "There was this period from about 1986 to 1993, when every single local paper had a story like 'Local man sells Spider-Man issue No. 1 for $12,000,'" says Peter Bagge, creator of the legendary Hate comic books. "So then you had all these guys telling their sons to get into comics and buy issue No. 1 of everything. Marvel and DC exploited that by coming up with all kinds of excuses to make new No. 1s like Batman and Superman No. 1 or Superman Gets Married, and giving them alternate covers so hardcore collectors would buy every version. People were buying entire boxes of this stuff, but the collector thing was not expanding readership. When you'd hear that sales jumped from 100,000 to a million, it was still 100,000 people buying it all. And because everybody has this stuff, it's not rare, so it never becomes valuable. So they really turned off an entire generation of comic book readers. You have some kid saying 'I'm sitting on 50 copies of Superman Gets Married or something that nobody wants.' And then imagine when they actually crack it open and start reading it and see what crap it is."

That big-event marketing sensibility is classic behavior by a mature medium looking to stay on life support. And it has not died out: This year's big superhero seller has been the death of Captain America—the kind of marketing stunt most of us feel can only occur once.

So: a stagnant market catering to the hardcore with product that winds up inexplicable and joyless to non-aficionadoes, with little leftover room for, say, a second genre. And despite all this treasure, people wonder if the domestic comics business might be in trouble. Go figure! Douglas Wolk, meanwhile, weighs in on the various available draws for new readers as things presently stand, and tries to frame them is the best light he can:

One of the biggest new-reader project of 2007 is Dark Horse's Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, and the reason is two words: Joss Whedon. The TV show's creator has been writing the new comics series, picking up where the TV show left off, and Buffy fans have been coming into comics stores to get it—and not stopping there. The Buffy series is currently the bestselling title at Rocketship, the Brooklyn, N.Y., comics store, "by a pretty considerable margin," said owner Alex Cox. The new customers it brings in are starting to buy other comics, too, Cox said, especially Joss Whedon's other projects, like the superhero series, Runaways. "We've pulled in extra Runaways sales just by racking it next to Buffy. They're not just coming in for Buffy and leaving. With the death of Captain America, people came in, wanted that one issue, and we'll never see them again."

Wolk also notes the sales of Marvel's Stephen King-licensed title, The Dark Tower, plus Free Comic Book Day, positive press and collusion with schools and libraries, but even when you combine all of these potential opportunities, they still aren't enough to make for a healthy, sustainable market over the long haul; to do that, you need the core product you sell to be striking the fancy of the general public. And that's just not happening.

At the heart of the discussion is the fact that the combined strength of the bookstore and online markets aren't enough to supplant the Direct Market as currently constituted, which is true enough. That said, with some 75-80% of comics shops taken up by Marvel and DC, another 15% or so taken up by licensed sci-fi and horror titles, toys and the like, and just a sliver left for everything else, there really hasn't been a choice for those in the "everything else" category.

Still, things aren't as bad as all that. What has everyone in an uproar, when you think about it, aren't so much growing pains as birthing pains. Certainly for companies other than the Big Two, the writing has been on the wall for years now, and the migration of companies and talent to greener pastures has already changed the landscape. In bookstores, companies with better distributor representation have been able to create stable and promising markets for their wares. Corporate online initiatives range from the cautious (DC Comics' Zuda initiative) to the adventurous (SLG Publishing's EyeMelt), while individually there are probably at least as many cartoonists earning enough from their websites to pay the rent as there ever were self-published cartoonists earning as much from longlasting series at the height of the Direct Market — probably more. Manga? Native cartoonists are finally beginning to find comfortable perches within the Western manga revolution, though again it's more a starting point than anything else. And the Direct Market isn't dead yet. Indeed, the successful opening movements of the nascent retailers' trade group ComicsPRO suggests that the smarter shopowners are finally beginning to act in a smart and concerted fashion.

Is the Direct Market set up or in any way qualified to cater to new generations of 21st-century comics readers? Hell no. Do the alternatives provide opportunities for savvy creators and entrepreneurs? Yes they do. Will they lead to stable, profitable markets for tomorrow? The possibility is certainly there. Will the coming market quickly and painlessly accomodate everyone currently working or seeking work in the field? Almost certainly not. Still, when has it ever been easy for any significant length of time, anyway? For those committed to creating comics, there are numerous options available for getting a foot in the door, and each have been successfully exploited by creators and entrepreneurs to create fulfilling careers for themselves. I can't tell you whether there's a Land of Milk and Honey waiting around the corner, but I do know that there are any number of oases dotting the desert and providing some small sustenance for hardy travelers working to build their futures. The Plastic Age can't last forever, but that doesn't mean that Armageddon lies in wait. We've gone from horrible to dicey; this isn't success, but it is progress, and freshly blazed trails tend to widen fairly quickly.


Above, right: Something I drew at the last minute to illustrate an article in The Comics Journal #262.


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