December 10, 2008
Another Reason Comics May Have Hope In These Economic Times: Investment
I was watching Hurricane Katrina footage in a restaurant once upon a time -- not live, but not so long after the fact that it didn't draw everyone's attention to the bar television. A regular remarked to one of the waitstaff that if something like that happened nearby he wouldn't stick it out, but he wouldn't be the first one to the shelter, either. He was loud and funny, and he talked in a manner that I could never replicate in prose, but the gist of what he was saying is that you have to have more pride in the basic structure of your life than to show up at the food kitchen the Monday after you lose your job. You don't want to get to the shelter so early you're helping set up the cots. You don't want to live a fragile existence.
I see signs of toughness in elements of the comics industry, particularly in comparison to other media industries right now. Things may get bad, they may get outright horrible, but relative to the apocalyptic upheaval experienced by book publishing recently and the newspaper industry over the last several months, I think we can safely say that comics -- stupid, inbred, lectured-to, looked down-upon comics -- wasn't first in line. I think that's a source of hope, for at least as long as it lasts, and I think a significant contributor that comes from a compulsive addiction to making comics. Comics may have a problem spreading their investment back into the industry into elements of infrastructure and even the talent involved, but there's plenty of energy and devotion going into comics.
As much as DC and Marvel have turned into vehicles for pushing wealth up the production line and into the hands of corporate beneficiaries, and as much as we're all going to take a hard look at especially DC's publication schedule once the usual winter slow-down moves into Spring, for now it seems safe to say that even those companies are invested in the business of making comics far ahead of what might minimize the cost-exposure portion of a cost benefit analysis. As many books as companies like that make that on the surface look like losers, most are still profitable on some basic level. And that's above and beyond the benefits that accrue to having a place to develop talent, to give future potential licensed properties a creative workout, to allow your star superhero writer a place to do work that's more personal to him so you keep him well within your sights, and so on.
In other words -- and I apologize for using some basic economic stuff that's in the air as I fully realize no one wants to hear it from me -- it seems to me that unlike other media industries, comics has yet to be streamlined to serve a perception that some profit margin needs to be hit that it has no business trying to hit. Although you never know, mainstream comics seems
to have a long way to go before it has an apocalyptic couple of days that freaks everybody out. If nothing else, you could say that a mainstream comics company that had to make some cuts in order to make themselves leaner for the days ahead would likely be cutting fat.
There's little to no fat at the vast majority of the smaller companies, but I think they're similarly invested in comics and that could be a strength in the months ahead. Here's one thing that kills me. As opposed to leasing fancy office real estate and bitching when the artists whose rights you've assumed aren't grateful enough for the paid work you allowed them to provide you, companies like D&Q and Fantagraphics used some their new-found health from shifting more heavily to bookstore sales to open up comic shops through which they can attract new customers and have a place to throw events. Isn't that nice? Isn't that admirable on some basic level? Not save the whales admirable, but showing up for work with a big smile on your face admirable.
SLG has just joined that group of publisher-retailers; PictureBox I believe joined them a while back. Top Shelf is the most aggressive sales entity at conventions. Just about every publisher of a certain size has an active network through which to sell on-line, even if that's just an Amazon.com account or a "shop" linked into a web site. What connects them all is a relative fury with which they make comics. IDW, for example, seems to have basically the exact opposite strategy of Top Shelf when it comes to conventions but for the same reason: under their model, not going to conventions may help them make more comics. It's never been a good industry to be a limited-item publisher (La Mano, Typocrat) or to publish one-offs within a related, not-comics framework (Virgin), and although the lottery they're hoping to win is only one ticket away, it's not been that great of an industry for those guys whose publishing models depends not on making comics in a significant way but selling them made or unmade to a movie studio (let them buy an ad).
I believe that a strength for comics in the months ahead is, well, comics. As an industry, comics has its peccadilloes and horror stories, but it seems to be really good at making comics. It does so with reasonable efficiency and in ways that largely make sense, with a force and fullness that can be altered and shaped without automatic risk of something being snuffed out or radically changed. I don't see any announcements in the near-future that the entire Vertigo line, say, is going to be turned over to Jay Leno. Comics have to be out there if they have a chance of improving in relative cultural value in a way that will allow them to surf the wave that's been drowning other media. If some companies will fail, we're healthier for every other comics company that might be able to pick up the fallen publishers' best books. If some comics and initiatives are to be cut within certain business, the companies that have books left after cutting some of them will be in a better position than those companies that cut into the heart of what they do and it's immediately less viable to do them.
I suspect that when people in the comics industry stop making comics, it's going to be because something finally let them know they couldn't anymore, not because someone suggested it was strategic for them not to. That's not a bad position to be in, moving forward.
posted 7:00 am PST
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