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December 14, 2008


Ten Questions For Which I Have No Answer, Or At Least Not One I Like

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By Tom Spurgeon

In no particular order, here's what I'll be thinking on over the holiday season, hoping that I'll be better able to provide some sort of answers in the New Year.

image1. Why Don't Alternative Comic Books Sell Better In Comics Shops?
The general answer may be obvious on the surface of it: they don't appeal to as many people as other kinds of comics, and today's versions don't appeal to as many people as those being published a while back did. There are even competing arguments as to the specifics: not enough big-name alternative titles anymore vs. not enough titles overall to provide a tipping point that would inspire regular customer visits. There's a construction of logic that bothers me, though. Fifteen years ago it was conventional wisdom and strongly supported in anecdotal fashion that comic books ranging in popularity from Eightball to Artbabe sold the vast majority of their issues in a tiny, tiny handful of stores. Since then we seem to have seen a significant proliferation of stores like those stores. Why hasn't there been a corresponding surge in alternative comics sales?

image2. Why On Earth Does Marvel Think $3.99 Comic Books Is A Good Idea?
I haven't talked to a single Direct Market retailer that thinks Marvel will have any $2.99 books left by Labor Day 2009. Granted, I don't talk to a ton of retailers on a regular basis, but I'm guessing from the level of agreement in my small sample that this is a strongly held opinion and at least a very real likelihood. While the company's desire for a $3.99 comic book to better take advantage of hardcore fans and to ameliorate against lost print ad revenue -- have you looked at the preponderance of house ads in a standard Marvel comic recently? -- seems easy to figure out, the danger involved in jacking up the price 33 percent as we slip deeper into a recession seems very real. The severity of this leap might be compounded to terms of mainstream comics because few mainstream comic book readers buy one comic book; they buy several at a time. If someone is a $40 a week shopper, and is lucky to remain so in tough economic times, they've just gone from being able to buy 13 comics to being able to buy ten. I can't think of any change like that for any kind of entertainment, ever.

image3. Why Has DC's Final Crisis Been So Cocked Up?
The discussion as to why DC Comics let their Final Crisis comic book event be executed as if it lurched out the door, clutched its chest, set itself on fire and then rolled around in broken glass seems to have devolved into bizarre Internet parodies of reasonable positions: angry jeremiads about the utter stupidity and ineptness of the current DC brain trust vs. self-styled realists lecturing in acidic tones to why none of this matters in the long run unless you're a big nerd that cares about stupid things. What's missing is a cold dissection as to the why and how of this happening. It seems obvious from the outside looking in that there were sales left on the table and momentum potentially lost due to the haphazard scheduling and creative dissonance. It's a summer event series that may conclude its run in the lousiest-selling time of the year, from the company that focused so much on this one series it had other series whose issue numbers riffed on its arrival.

4. Why Have Sales Gone Up On The Lower Part Of The Top 300?
The comics at the bottom of the sales estimates have apparently gone up even as the top of the charts remains locked into a successful top ten to twenty followed by a slightly steep slide into the second-rung performers paradigm. I've seen plenty of people note the bottom-chart success, and some stick their chest out about it, but I have yet to see a convincing explanation for it. If you're going to ask me to believe that it just means that market is healthier than previous thought, I want to know why it is right now in that specific way when it wasn't before.

image5. Why Is It That People Still Don't Seem To Get The CBLDF?
A significant portion of the comics industry and the culture that surrounds that industry spent much of the 1990s making sure people knew they didn't find Mike Diana's work valuable even if they were supporting him. A slightly different cross-section spent much of the 2000s explaining why Gordon Lee was a bad retailer who either deserved what happened to him or was damn lucky he was being helped out. Now some people seem to be focusing on the nature of the material Christopher Handey had in his possession and his reasons for having it. Only a small portion of the CBLDF's supporters seem to have remained consistent in their belief that the Fund is about law, not people. Why is this? Are comics fans fundamentally conservative? Are they conditioned to think in terms of good guys and bad guys? Does the Fund rely too much on emphasizing the sympathetic victim and the personal appeal of its most ardent supporters in a way that gives rise to a gag reflex? I honestly don't know.

6. Why Is No One Alarmed That DC/Marvel Dominate Market Share?
I don't think the dominance of the bigger mainstream comics companies in the Direct Market surprises anyone, but as there was a moral component to arguments against this the first time it happened I'm surprise there isn't at least a bit more noise about it now. It also seems slightly unhealthy, and there seems to be a risk in that the bigger companies haven't always paid attention to anything outside of their specific, short-term self-interest.

image7. Whatever Happened to Traditional Self-Publishing?
The last I looked, the only person still following the traditional self-publishing model and having any success at it is Jeff Smith, with RASL. I'm probably forgetting one or two people, but the general notion remains the same. A fallacy of the 1990s wave of self-publishing was the insistence by some that anyone could do it if they just tried hard enough, an assertion that ignored how much a certain kind of artistic temperament, support system and level of productivity contributed to the most successful one-creator, one-title efforts. Still, it seems like a viable way to build a business, and given the way that younger creators seem to know more about more facets of the business than previous generations, it's amazing to me there aren't at least a handful of creators steering their own ships. Are the market barriers just too difficult now? Does the Image option satisfy this role for most creators?

image8. Why Is The Fact That A Few People Are Making That Kind Of Money On Webcomics Not A Bigger Story?
If you've been to a webcomics panel recently, a lot of the discussion seems to revolve around making money off of one's efforts on-line. Clearly, the vast majority of people still don't. Many people never will. But a handful of those involved in this aspect of comics reportedly see middle class revenues roll in by creating enough attention through their free offerings to drive business to merchandising, licensing and even publishing. I'm not suggesting that this needs to be copied, as I don't know that it's a model that can be replicated. I just wonder why it isn't discussed in more matter-of-fact fashion. People either seem bored by this notion as if it were inevitable or stunned by it as if it's totally not believable.

image9. How Many Staffed Editorial Cartoonist Positions Will There Be Ten Years From Now?
After a few years where it seemed like there would be a profession-wide digging-in to help counter the slow decline of staffed editorial cartoonists, those same elements seem caught flat-footed by the freefall in those jobs driven by the collapsing newspaper industry. Suddenly, a general insistence that cartoonists are popular and that newspapers that dump them are stupid doesn't seem to be enough to stem the tidal wave of firings. Could there be fewer than 20 such cartoonists with those kinds of jobs when the newspaper industry shifts into a new role – if they're able to make it through the transition period? While some cartoonists seem more likely to keep their positions than others, there isn't a single individual firing that would shock the majority of observers.

image10. What Is The Big Picture Future Of Translated Manga?
I haven't seen anyone describe in even general terms a future for translated manga beyond some folks making assurances it will continue and be really, really successful and other people writing semi-snotty articles and message board posts that the opportunity for traction from bigger licenses seems to be on the wane. I'd love to see someone address the future for this kind of publishing in more direct fashion that didn't seem like a snow job, and be allowed to do so without people proclaiming that this means they hate those kinds of comics or that they'll eventually be shown up for betting against that field. I mean, I assume the future is at least different from the present, right?
 
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