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

May 16, 2010

Am I The Customer They’re Seeking?

imageBrian Hibbs, recent CR interview subject and longtime Direct Market retailing advocate, posted a column last week about the ongoing digital comics revolution. His focus is on the still-in-development plans of the big mainstream comics market players. As befits his established set of interests, Hibbs paints a picture of an on-line strategy that supports worried comics retailers. In his conception, the availability of digital comic books plays the same role as the newsstand played in the early days of the direct market: as an on-every-corner outreach program for the casual fan interested in checking out some comics. Hibbs proposes that the most influential companies lead the way in progressive scheduling that protects the golden goose of comics retail as it currently stands, that business gets funneled towards comic shops in as many ways as is possible, and that the price points be established that facilitate attraction to customers across the board: on-line, initial print serialization, print trade collection. It is a rational, hopeful document, and I urge you to read it.

However, since we're talking comics, none of what Brian writes is likely to happen. In fact, there's a much greater chance we'll see something close to the opposite of what he painstakingly lays out. People in comics can't decide where to eat dinner at conventions; setting policy for maximum return over the long term is beyond most industries, but it's especially beyond comics. Our industry's past indicates that most influential comics companies would time travel into the future and literally hack away at the profits that might be enjoyed then -- including their own -- if it meant a temporary gain in market share or the arcane positioning of your choice in the present. The last time seismic shifts in approach gripped the comics industry, Marvel pursued a series of moves so goofy that their editors likely kept sending company memos back up the pipeline having written "not plausible" on them. Marvelution was not just an indictment of the then Marvel brain trust, the results were such I believe it actually challenged the general theories of Darwin after which it was named. The rest of the industry, of course, rushed to follow Marvel's lead. The period of change that came before the 1990s era version proceeded at such a glacial pace that only a Lucasfilm intervention in the form of Star Wars comics sales likely kept Marvel afloat. With the digital revolution's glacier period just about played out, I fully expect at least one of the companies (probably Marvel) to adopt a more-aggressive-than-some-hoped-for same-day publishing philosophy when it comes to on-line iterations of their comics, and I expect them to adopt it soon. And then I expect the rest of the companies to do something similar. Because that's what they do.

Why? Because I think the perception of something occurring that may be profitable, that may offer a company an advantage, that may play well in the press and may do wonders within a massive corporate structure for the person deemed responsible is more attractive to the decision-makers at comics companies than any bird in the hand. For one thing, past experience says that bird is going to hang onto that hand with a loyalty that makes hard men weep and lift their beers. Stroke it on the head and say pretty, pretty bird every once in a while -- look at it like you're listening -- and that bird may provide you with all the cover you need for a smooth transition to birdless or at least bird-light society. And that's not to say there isn't some credence to the thought that multiple ways of disseminating comics to the world can indeed coexist for a long, long time. There are very few extinction events in any arts business. Punditry in comics tends toward apocalyptic shrieking and the just as myopic "did the world just end? no? I told you so!" rejoinder. A culture of short-sighted business moves rarely decapitates an industry, but it makes much more likely unattended-to cuts around the body. A continual weakening of the fabric eventually produces tears: fewer hardships can be borne, fewer things can be done to move the needle in any direction, more and more effort is soon required to restore the market to rational behavior and reaction to the most positive business moves. And then, market segment by market segment, things begin to give out.

imageAnother thing about which I wonder more and more when I read various think-pieces on comics and the development of on-line strategies is whether or not it's wise to assume that everyone sees the onset of digital comic as a way to get more people reading comics, to increase the audience size. I mean, I hope that's the case. And I even think we've seen signs that's true in the broader sense. When I think of the audience for webcomics I don't see it as an audience where everyone involved would automatically be as passionately reading a different bunch of comics if things like Penny Arcade or Bad Machinery didn't exist in the form they exist. When I think of a newspaper strip like Cul-De-Sac, I think its chances for survival are improved ten-fold by having it on-line where opinion-leaders can see it and be impressed by it and perhaps advocate for it when the possibility of running it locally comes up. I know that CDS is the first comic strip where I bought the trades before reading it in the newspaper. But when you're talking specifically about companies like Marvel and DC, companies that have habitually ignored ways to improve their basic publishing habits in a way that would maximize their current audience avenues, is it really fair to assume they see new platforms the way we'd wish for them to? The last time Marvel sought out new readers it did so almost entirely by ramping up the drama and complexity of their comics to create "events" which would lure relapsed readers back into the fold. At least that was my reading of their press statements at the time. DC also seems to presume some level of pre-existing affection for their big cultural icons and to my ear talks about successful comic books as bringing their awesome characters the readers they deserve rather than as creative efforts that stand on their own.

My point is that after years of fighting little territory wars over the same group of readers with intermittent forays back into comics land by a slightly bigger group of less devoted fans, mainstream comics companies might be just as happy to see various digital platforms as a way to win those wars, too. When I think of my friends and my family for whom I can predict behavior (say 50-60 people), or even limit it to just thinking of all the occasional comics reading ones in that group (say 15-20), it seems to me most likely that I'm the one that they're going to target. I don't buy serial comics presently. I don't live in a town where I can buy them and the system as currently constituted relies on a single model mixing high capital investment and arcane knowledge in such a way it doesn't seem likely to ever hold hope in returning to me such an outlet. I have enough money I could buy a chunk of comics but not enough I'd be all that happy dropping a lot of money at $4 a unit. I don't desire enough comics that mail-order seems worth the trouble. I consider the experience of shopping for comics part of the fun, even if it's only a few clicks. The companies in question make the kind of comics I don't care if I ever have in paper form. I have serious clutter concerns for my home, besides. I find downloading comics illegally and for free distasteful. I'm conversant enough with the various universes that they don't have to aim creative efforts specifically towards me: I know what the Badoon are, I can name the Metal Men, I can tell the difference between Skartaris and the Savage Land. I've tried but not been wholly satisfied with on-line comics viewing services that focus on older comics. I'm up enough on the current comics scene that I hear about what's in the ones that are currently coming out and I'm thus more curious about them than I am in what happened to Batman in 1996.

See what I mean? It's kind of spooky. They could probably be getting $10-$20 out of me every week, with very little effort on their part, right this very minute. At the same time, I can't see that being a great thing. It's a baby step in really big shoes. New technologies tend to bring about change, but the last thing to evolve may be the ingrained commercial instincts of the corporations serving the existing model. The forthcoming war in terms of digital comics is going to be fought on a many different battlefields, including and maybe especially the ones the big companies seem to prefer fighting.

the first comic book that made me think "I'd buy one right now on-line if I could"/a panel from John Allison's Bad Machinery
posted 10:00 am PST | Permalink

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