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Why Don't We Talk Anymore?
posted November 7, 2004
 

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The experience of comics is essentially myopic; comics stop existing the moment you turn your attention away. Its businesses encourage certain limits to our focus as well. Strip cartoonists release their offerings one day at a time. Comic book fans are asked to focus on this week's shipment, the contents of which are often a mystery to the best informed. The majority of those working in comics are pressed upon to complete work to deadline, or otherwise manage and maximize the modest rewards that float down incrementally from on high, that perspective becomes a luxury rarely indulged.

These marketplace blinders, a generational cynicism and a nostalgic gratitude for corporate entertainment have made comics a fallow ground for fruitful discussion concerning larger issues. As is the case in most expressions of the popular culture in which comics is embedded, the world of comics complicates matters by offering mechanisms to derail any attempt to change the status quo. This includes the enticement of community membership that doesn't see ethical action as a value; an appeal to activist ego that makes many of the hastily arrived-at solutions untenable and easy to dismiss; and a propulsive desire for escape and identity that negotiates bad times by ignoring them.

Whether or not we wish to believe it, there exist issues facing the American comics industries worth thinking about beyond the ongoing quests for self-identity of its fan-participants. These issues need to be considered and deliberated and worked over; they need to be taken seriously.

Here are a few general ideas and potential big-issue problems that have bubbled up from the last few weeks of comics news. There are no easy answers, but the problems are too important not to consider when the opportunity arises. Let's dedicate ourselves to recognizing those opportunities, moments of reflection that are real and considerable and engaged with the world of comics as it is rather than as we want it to be. There are dialogues worth having where only silence exists right now.

Are There Too Many Comics?

The notion of too much product is often framed in terms of the flood of translated manga and related Asian culture comics. I personally don't see the problem there. As opposed to over-saturation periods in comics past, particularly those between 1987 and 1994, the manga market seems largely focused on returnable goods. With the ability to return, there is much, much less at risk in terms of retail exposure. For their part, direct market retailers have thus far been arguably too conservative regarding this material. The success manga and related books have enjoyed give many of the publishers involved reserves through which to expose their companies to greater risk as the market defines itself.

Where over-publishing may be a concern is, well, everywhere else. I look on many of the forthcoming book lines from major publishers and strong niche companies with great suspicion. After a few big names up top, the talent, with few exceptions doesn't seem special enough to warrant a general, big-market push. Comics in 2004 isn't comics in 1990, the last time there was such interest. There are now dozens of talents who can sustain the interest of a book buying public; back then there were only a few. There aren't hundreds, however, and I think we're moving awfully close to triple-digit territory. Similarly, I'm not even sure that an increased flood of collections and original book-format works from the major publishers was preceded by an equivalent market demand.

I think it's high time to also consider the lost opportunities of over-publishing by the comic book companies in the direct market. You would never, ever know that so many titles hover around non-profitability by how many clog the comic shop racks. Publishing for market share or from a culture that suggests a certain size and scope to one's line is a fool's game. It puts a strain on the entire market and draws attention away from those titles that would benefit greatly by a less crowded playing field and great care to marketing and presentation. The throw-stuff-against-the-wall method of culling hits should enjoy less currency among publishers working a niche marketplace over which they have decades of mastery. The newspaper strip market and its more general market could also probably do with fewer offerings that hit the 50-paper wall and survive as long as the cartoonist can bear the lack of significant reward.

Are There Too Few Stores?

A lack of comic book stores is an idea tha thas been floated from a couple of voices within the industry, most notably retailer and writer/advocate Brian Hibbs and longtime DC executive Paul Levitz. A dearth of stores is a concept worth considering, particularly if we remember that a main reason there are fewer comic book stores to meet current demand is because of the malfeasance of the larger comics companies, particularly Marvel, DC and Image.

A key to figuring out an appropriate level of retail saturation may be in embracing comics' niche status as an advantage rather than as an uncomfortable reality to be denied. Hibbs is right to point towards research that suggests specialty retail shops play an important role in creating and sustaining a market for a wide variety of comics, a market deeper than the also-necessary breadth of the bookstore clientele.

Thus the real issue moves away from whether there's a potential benefit in more shops, which should be largely self-evident, and to the matter of whether companies are willing to invest in strategies – such as making the purchase of inventory count towards ordering discounts as Hibbs has suggested – that would allow potential business owners to open and sustain new stores in new markets. This is complicated by the fact that existing retailers are frequently so obsessed in competitive advantage following years of ritual abuse by publishers and distributors that any initiatives would likely have to include them as well.

What this means is that a significant number of comic shops can either come from a concerted effort by all the major publishers to change the way they think of selling their goods or from a continuing, slow, erratic build as certain people defy logic and open stores despite a hostile atmosphere for doing so.

I think it's pretty clear which one is more likely, even if I don't have to like it.

What is the Future of the Newspaper Market?

Although the newspaper market for comics has been perpetually flustered and on edge since the late 1940s and probably before that, a few signs point to things shaking out in a slightly more desperate way in the near future. One major newspaper earlier this year asked for free comics to get it through a financial rough patch, a sign of how some newspapers perceive their comic strips. At least one long-running cartoonist is seeking an on-line subscription model through which to continue his work, while a few on-line cartoonists are offering up competitive models to the established syndicates that make hay of the willingness of some cartoonists to work for free -- or at least to defer rewards until later. In addition, editorial cartoonist positions continue to be phased out – there were three or four in August, I believe -- as newspapers shrink, become more susceptible to profit margins, and begin to embrace a national mood for "balance."

The newspaper market for cartoons and strips continues to make too much money to ever go completely away, but one can imagine either a massive market correction or a continued decline of the form out of inability to make such an adjustment. Signs of continuing weakness in comics' biggest and arguably most important market should not be blithely ignored.

How Much Do Comics' Bad Habits Cost Comics?

The move to bookstores has been a good one for many comic book companies because it has forced them to think beyond the next solicitation cycle and plan their releases in a more logical manner. This relative stability hasn't trickled all the way down to the comics market, where titles continue to cluster together, ship late, or rocket through production so that they cannot be fully marketed in advance.

I would never suggest that art shouldn't be done on an irregular schedule, but these are peccadilloes of the publisher rather than the creator. If the publishers were to rid themselves of habits that were built in another era, it might even be time to consider street dates and all the retailer fears and worries that come with them.

Shoestring publishing, like wearing t-shirts to awards banquets, is understandable at comics' rougher edges and decidedly less charming from those bankrolled by massive corporations.

Will Economic Justice Ever Matter?

The various American comics industries were built in large part on a series of original sins regarding the abuse of creative people by business people. Many of those cases, including that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and Superman, are much more complicated than the black and white manner in which many of us first accounted them. Some situations were never all that unfair in the first place. Still others have been rectified in a way that has largely satisfied those involved, including settlements by both DC and Marvel motivated by lawsuits or threat of same.

While recognizing the real gains made, there should be no forgetting that comics was built on exploitation. Further mistreatment remains a distinct possibility. We should continue to press for a full public account of housecleaning efforts.

Comics companies have never done enough to gain benefit of the doubt. A certain skepticism regarding business should continue for as long as these companies exist. It should even be expanded to comics on every level. Are current contracts from alternative and arts publishers meet industry standards for book publishing? Do the splits represent the providing of services that are no longer required? Are the on-line comics business models fair? Who is making money from the outside deals? Business matters deserve attention, understanding, and firm desire to work the iniquities out. It can start with you