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August 1, 2010


CR Sunday Feature: Five Comics Stories You Can Bank On (Sort Of)

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The calendar year splits into two easy halves: January-June; July-December. Many businesses split their year at the July 4 holiday; many households according to the school year with a long summer break between. Comics splits its calendar into before Comic-Con International and after Comic-Con International. Even those industry members the most wiped-out from the weekend before are gearing up for a return to the grind tomorrow morning. What develops in 2010’s part two will depend on unforseen events more than any other factor -- litigation, deaths, economic drift, challenges for and against free expression -- but there are a few stories that seem almost certain to flower before the winter holidays.

1. Comic-Con's Big Move. This one had better happen soon, or I quit. My hope is that the Big Show stays in San Diego, but a little voice tells me it's going to be Los Angeles. Based on my record as an industry psychic, this is great news for Anaheim. I honestly don't know anything about what's going to happen. My hunch is that it's always been San Diego's convention to lose, but as the deadline has been rolled forward again and again San Diego may actually be losing it. I can't imagine the basic pitches of Anaheim and Los Angeles have changed a whole lot in recent months, while the kind of initiatives that San Diego has been putting together seem to me the kind of thing that might change in status all the time.

It seems as if the hold-up may be the San Diego hotels' collective unwillingness to pledge to behave in a more friendly fashion in terms of rooms made available and the prices charged. But that's only a guess, probably a very wrong one. I prefer San Diego because I think it's the best place to go and enjoy such a show, especially as I get older and the idea of four evenings straight standing around in a hotel bar loses more and more of its always-dubious luster. In addition, none of the other locations is close to being a sure thing in terms of solving what folks perceive of as CCI's problems. I guess we'll see. You can't say it hasn't been a compelling process.

2. The Other Big Move. I'm guessing DC will move to Burbank. A couple of people tell me this is a done deal, but as the sports journalist Bill Simmons is fond of pointing out, there's the done deal where your friend tells you he's getting married, and the done deal where he and the bride-to-be show you a ring and mail you a save-the-date. We're in the tell-you-he's-getting-married phase of this story and I won't 100 percent believe it's going to happen until the city of Burbank slips a (power) (flight) (costume-holding) ring on DC's proffered finger. Many of the pros and cons of whether such a move should take place have been discussed to death. Two little talked about timely factors that may play a role are 1) pro-Burbank move folks trying to get this done before Green Lantern box office receipts get a vote, 2) it's my understanding that Time-Warner can't get rid of extra real estate it has in New York before abandoning a bunch more of it.

While the Internet-era news cycle will place a huge premium on rushing this news out when it's finally official, all the truly compelling developments would come after such a decision. Aside from the enormous historical factors involved in one of the industry's big two leaving New York in significant, perhaps total fashion; aside from the how this puts the publishing division in all but open service to the task of developing film-driven mega-properties; I think there's a chance this could significantly alter DC's core personality and culture because future employees will come from tanned, aggressive Southern Californians interested in backdoor access to the film industry as opposed to pasty, meek New Yorkers angling for a monthly box of free funnybooks. I've not always been a fan of how film and television people make comics publishing decisions or how Type A personalities within comics companies can sometimes press their agenda with an effectiveness that exceeds their collective merit, so this could be make for a huge change in how that company operates five, six, ten years from now.

3. The Launch of the Dedicated Oh, Brother! Site. King Features is launching a site revolving around its Bob Weber Jr./Jay Stephens feature Oh, Brother!, an on-line move based roughly on the digital example of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. I don't think anyone expects it to work that well, but if it works at all it could make for a big step forward in general syndicate on-line strategies.

The crucial thing about that is that it's conceivably an evolution in strategies that would come in a timely enough fashion for it to be replicated or built upon. The syndicates have been so slow in terms of deciding how they want to do things on-line that some of their best ideas -- King Features' newspaper partnership initiative, for one -- have sprung into being a couple years after they could have best been put to use. In fact, the Internet has been more mirror than vehicle for the traditional syndicates: the fact that none of the decisions made in the last dozen years, good or bad, can be shown to have had a uniquely positive dramatic effect on any single feature just shows you how sweet the syndicate business model has been and in many ways continues to be. Anyway, I have high hopes for this new take, both because I like the way the feature looks in my limited exposure to it and this attempt on its behalf sure beats some of the other things those businesses have tried.

4. The One-Year Anniversary Of Diane Nelson's Hire. I don't study the mainstream comics end of the business as closely as some, but I'm having a hard time figuring out how DC has changed at all from a publishing perspective since the hire of Diane Nelson and the months-later installation of the Jim Lee-Dan Didio-Geoff Johns triumverate as basically her lieutenants. The books feel exactly the same to me, as the major storyline initiatives still seem to swing wildly between boring (even laughably pompous) high-concept takes that count on readers agreeing that the core DC characters are awesome going in and these weird, "realistic" storylines that read like snuff film screenplays. Their talent development efforts seem they've stayed exactly where they were in 2009, and they've closed more publishing programs than they've opened. A full digital commitment still seems a long way off. I don't know, I like many of the DC people, I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, and maybe I'm just missing all the game-changing moves they've been making, but as of now I'm not seeing much of anything on the publishing end that makes me confident of the future.

I guess a look back at the Disney purchase of Marvel will be on some reporters' to-do list as well, but after it was clear they'd be somewhat hands off with that company's successful publishing division, the idea that there would be changes seemed to settle in on DC only. The Marvel-related TV announcements are about what many folks came to expect, and the superhero movies continue their march forward.

5. This Fall's Election As A Minefield For Editorial Cartoonists. It may just be my opinion, but I woke up the other day and looked at some editorial cartoons being done out there of a political nature and my only thought was to be glad this was never my calling or the natural outcome of my skill set. There have been some fine topics for editorial cartoonists this year, primarily the everyone-hate-big-evil-businesses, target-rich environment of that awful BP oil spill and the sort-of-news celebrity evisceration carousels surrounding Tiger Woods and then LeBron James. I think all that goes out the window with this Fall's mid-term elections, however, as my-team/your-team sectarianism and widespread media distrust/overall-message dissonance aren't just in the air, they are prominent campaign strategies. In other words: there's an enormous amount of bullshit out there, and a widespread distrust of anyone holding a shovel. Good luck, guys.

6. How Healthy Is Comics Retail? One item of discussion amongst the industry folks I talked to in San Diego was the loss of retailers in traditionally strong comics markets such as New York (Rocketship's closure has been public and well-covered), and circumstance inherent in the business outlook of at least two huge names in comics retail that may see them head out the door sooner rather than later. This is worse news than usual not just for the obvious reason that comic shops generate business as well as serve demand, but also if you believe geographical coverage is an issue (as I do).

It's take your pick of portents: the absence of a vital retailer selling new comics at Comic-Con the way Comic Relief used to underlines the notion that owner of the majority of comics' best shops are getting older, there's never a guarantee that these businesses change hands without causing major differences in what they're able to do, and I'm not sure there are enough up and coming retailers to play the same role as the generation of retailers now in that 55 and over club. Price increases, continued horrific scheduling strategies, a ridiculous and inflexible start-up model, over-publishing and the slight discombobulation that is likely to arrive with an upswing in attention to digital comics strategies are making things more difficult for the system just at the time when everything should be done to make things easier. As second downswing in the economy will likely drive lot of folks to reconsider what they do, and comics seems less likely to escape a second generally fallow period coming so quickly on the heels of the first. If enough holes start to appear in the retail fabric, changes could be forced on the industry, like it or not.
 
posted 8:33 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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