Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

March 19, 2006

CR Sunday Magazine

Better Late Than Never: The Comics Reporter's Top 50 Comics for 2005!


Did Peter Maresca's surprise hit collection come in as CR's number one? Has a nerdier sentence ever been offered up in the hopes of drumming up cheap suspense?

Dear Mr. Hibbs

Brian Hibbs makes a lot of good points in this latest edition of his "Tilting at Windmills" column at Newsarama, but I'm not sure it's as complete a debunking of conventional wisdom in the Direct Market as the article asserts. Basically, Hibbs takes on two pieces of independent comics griping -- that Marvel and DC crowd independents off the shelf and that the Direct Market is only interested in superheroes. He debunks the first by comparing the growth between Marvel/DC books and independent books from 1989 to today. He debunks the second by arguing a) the DM is actually primarily interested in the Marvel/DC universes and that the dominance of superhero books is limited to initial order of pamphlet-style comic books on a non-returnable basis.

The details of the second notion debunked I think is more about rhetorical ploys on Hibbs' part than engagement with the details. He seems to me splitting hairs (if you're trying to enter a market with cake, do you really care if ice cream dominates with two flavors or 37?), loading his arguments (the initial order pamphlet comics receive is vitally important to many types of comics publishing strategies) and limiting his sample to the market at this exact moment in time (a conservative market that obviously favors those companies with greater brand awareness). The thing is, I actually agree with Hibbs there's no excuse to whine about this state of affairs and not to set your mind to marketing yourself according to the facts on hand, even if we have different pictures as to how the market got there.

Still, the first notion about Marvel and DC crowding out books? I do think this is important, and I disagree with Hibbs' argument on several levels.

To begin with a side point, Hibbs starts with 1989 as a baseline as it was his first year in retail. The problem with this is I thought 1989 sucked for non-mainstream comics, too. So if you were to make a straight comparison between 1989 and 2006, seeing mainstream comics at roughly the same level of output as 1989 wouldn't be a reassuring notion, it would be one for alarm.

However, my main point is I don't think showing growth on two different tracks is anywhere near proof that overproduction by DC and Marvel has failed to be a factor on independent comics reaching their potential market.

First, you can't compare markets in two different periods according to number of titles. The market fluctuates. Different market periods sustain different outputs with different levels of effectiveness. And remember: the argument has never been as simple as a sheer publication overload (although maybe Marvel can be accused of this in the early '90s) but that certain publishers are making more comics than the market will allow to be profitable in order to boost market share. This is key.

Some markets will support 105 profitable mainstream comics, but some may only support 90. Once we understand that, we see that what's bad isn't that Marvel and DC are making a lot of money with x-number of super-profitable titles and thus keeping some teenager's Conan rip-off from selling an extra 80 issues but the suspicion that mainstream producing titles that aren't profitable by doing so lock retailers into restrictive buying patterns that keep them from making any distinctions at the lower end of the market.

Second, the mechanism at work is important, in that Marvel and DC are able to use the brand leverage Hibbs talks about in another point in the article to wedge themselves into place in a way that can make 10 more Marvel and DC comics -- comics the average retailer probably can't outright ignore -- a greater challenge to market diversity than 200 more independent comics -- comics that can be safely ignored just as easily when there are 200 as when there are 20.

Third, potential overproduction must be seen as part of a wider culture of market dominance. I've been to retailer meetings in Brian's 17-year window where Marvel and DC reps have outright suggested carrying more Marvel and DC product at the expense of independent stuff, and I bet -- although there's no way I'm doing math on a Sunday morning -- that the financial incentives offered support this as well.

Brian's most realistic assertion, that the culture of comics retail means a significant percentage of people won't order this stuff no matter what, that's a sad fact of comics retail that those that know better should work against, not tacitly support, even if the point of view has a 17-year head start. No one except the random squirrelly independent comics maven argues the old saw of being granted equal access to the Direct Market because of some "right," they argue that they'd like to see a greater presence in the Direct Market because they believe their stuff will sell there, often because they've enjoyed sales elsewhere -- even when it was loudly suggested this wasn't possible. Overproduction isn't about keeping the bottom 200 out, but about creating a stagnant sales culture that discourages people from being able to make significant choices past "Marvel/DC" and "that other stuff."

Go, Look: Mutts Title Images


Here's something I saw for the first time while looking for art to illustrate Patrick McDonnell's 50th birthday greeting: a portion of the Mutts web site devoted to the title image parodies the cartoonist does, which may or may not appear in most papers depending on which configuration is carried by most clients. Anyway, what's nice is that you can click through the McDonnell image for the inspiration image.

First Thought of the Day

For some reason, I woke up this morning determined to store all of my mini-comics in a large wicker basket.
posted 9:56 am PST | Permalink

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