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June 3, 2007

CR Feature: Six Comics Problems

As a companion piece to last Sunday's look at positive strategies that comics industry players could embrace in ways that would benefit everyone, and as a way to sort my own thoughts, here are three problems facing comics where it's not as easy to see a potential solution.

1. The Greatest Issue Facing the Direct Market?
imageThe best argument for the comics shop model of direct market sales is not that they are the most efficient facilitator of existing, perpetual demand. Rather, it's that a comic shop's presence, their manner of creating and nurturing an audience, increases the interest in and demand for what they sell. Unfortunately, a combination of factors over the years has left many areas of the country without a viable comics outlet beyond the presence of Wizard, Shonen Jump and Betty & Veronica Digest at the local Albertson's. Not only do those invested in the Direct Market system need to increase coverage, they need to find a model to do so that will work in communities that may not have had a thriving comics outlet since before the Black and White Boom and Bust of the middle to late 1980s.

2. Syndicates and Self-Knowledge
imageThere was an interesting series of postings by Mark Evanier after the cartoonist Johnny Hart passed away in which he made strong arguments in favor of the Hart family continuing the BC feature. One notion offered up was that if the resulting post-Hart BC strip were good or bad, the market would react accordingly. However, I'm not certain the strip market acts according to supply and demand, or at least not in a direct fashion. The strip market is very conservative. Success and failure is measured by editorial placements, not viewer eyeballs or reader satisfaction, and the decision whether or not to run a strip is driven to a large extent by factors like nostalgia, apathy and fear of incitement. It takes a great deal of momentum to significantly change the market status of any strip that has spent decades picking up clients. This has its advantages: it's nice that Doonesbury is relatively insulated from market free-fall if a dozen or two dozen papers were to suddenly decide not to run it any more for political reasons. But it also has its disadvantages, in that the market is going to be a less fertile arena for new work based solely on the quality of that work than maybe any other creative outlet that provides its successful creators a high standard of living.

Where this becomes a problem is that it suggests the potential for a disconnect between what makes a feature successful on the comics page and what makes a strip more likely to function effectively over the next 25 years of apocalyptic changes potentially facing the newspaper industry. There is no comics industry that has better met the unique demands of its clients than newspaper strips, and no industry that has had a more realistic grasp as to what will work and what won't in their primary market. Now they face a period which may be similar to the collapse of newsstand opportunities that ripped through comic books from the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Newspapers don't just face a loss in circulation: they face a loss in circulation, a perceived massive future loss in circulation when the current generation of newspaper readers dies out, and the loss of traditional revenue models between now and then to competitors like on-line classified services, all taking place while necessary costs and energy are being sunk into structural changes so that such institutions have a better chance of staying relevant in an on-line world. At the very least, syndicates will now have to deal with a potent secondary market which may feature fewer of the built-in peculiarities that have helped shape the successes and failures of the last 90 years. Those in charge of the syndicates will need an enormous amount of clarity and ruthless foresight to negotiate a period where the primary demands facing their clients may undergo rapid and perhaps irrevocable change.

3. The Mainstream Comics Event Comics Publishing Dilemma
imageThe jury's still out on whether or not a market living on a constant diet of event comics is preferable to a market driven by the sales success of individual comic book series. I'm not suggesting that the jury will come back one way or the other, although I have a guess. It's more that the sheer amount of time it's taking for an answer to suggest itself has become its own problem: a successful market driven by hunches and holding one's breath that takes a long, long time to fully establish its strengths and weaknesses. We should at least have a better idea of the current model's sustainability as we head into what looks like a not-quite-as-appealing cycle of such comics over the next year.

4. The Alternative Comics Serial Comics Publishing Dilemma
imageTo make serial comics succeed on a more regular basis, alternative comics publishers need to publish enough work in the category so that fans of that type of work have a reason to hit comics shops on a regular basis. However, there's a definite ceiling as to how many titles that market will sustain, complicated by the fact that the majority of shops choose to ignore that market altogether. Fifteen years ago, with little choice but to publish serial comics, companies found the sweet spot of market saturation by publishing more comics than the market could sustain and then cutting back. Now, with other revenue streams demanding attention, it has to be a conscious choice: an extremely difficult, almost impossible, and yet still very important conscious choice.

5. Manga's Publishing Dilemma
imageAs a category-level hit and one that works from a model that seems perfectly sustainable at levels of sale half as much or twice as much as what such books enjoy today, manga doesn't really have that one publishing quandary hanging over its head. I wonder, however, at what people in that industry think in terms of what their US market landscape will look like five to ten years from now. Is the expectation that new series will replace the current crop of super-performers? Is there an expectation of a broader but still significantly vital market driven by mid-level hits? The US manga industry has really never communicated a sense of its own publishing future, in a way I think such silence actually detracts from the ability of some market mechanisms and some readers to fully invest in what they're doing.

6. Loss of the Professional Class?
imageI'm becoming more and more of the mind that the recent surge in business for many comics industries has for the first time in the medium's history not had an identifiable, corresponding impact on the fortunes of comics creators. In previous decades comics rates went up when the business was booming. Even in the early 1980s, a period perhaps most directly reminiscent of this one in terms of monolithic company dominance of certain avenues, the industry's recovery from the malaise that almost killed it in the 1970s brought with it a new era of widespread creator royalties and greater opportunities for successful self-publishing than what existed before.

Now, despite the opening of new markets for new creators and the obvious relative health of the direct market when compared to five years ago, the stories about people receiving corresponding remuneration generally relate to opportunities seized outside of comics, not within it. In fact, there's some initial evidence that a few of the new models even when they're working full-bore may offer up rewards more of the struggling artist rather than the successful artist variety. We should not judge the financial success of comics on a bottom-line number of how much money goes to shareholders, swollen editorial crews and company executives, nor should we mistake the giddy, legitimizing enthusiasm that comes when a work of merit receives attention and plaudits and market opportunity as an automatic confirmation of the bottom line. Part of us should withhold judgment and wait and see how the creators themselves benefit, and in what ways, to what extent. A long period of diminished opportunities for creators to participate in the success of their creations will dramatically alter who makes art and what kind of art is made.
posted 4:08 am PST | Permalink

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