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

February 19, 2012

Five Reasons To Worry About Comics That Aren’t Piracy

The focused attention the last few weeks on the economics of the comics industry as it may or may feel the impact of comics piracy suggests a question: if piracy isn't as big of a concern as some people would have us believe it is, what current industry developments are more worthy of our time and attention? Let me suggest five.

1. The ownership of the biggest two comics publishers by gigantic entertainment corporations comes with the constant possibility for sweeping changes based on factors that have little to do with the comics themselves.
While there are reasons to believe that the owners of Marvel and DC value what their companies do and how they do it enough to keep them active as sustainable endeavors with rich intellectual property dividends, the corporate landscape is weird right now. When Marvel Comics cut staff in the same year that they had three $150 million movies in cineplexes and a "we've been pointing to this one for a while" franchise ready to launch within nine months or so of the announced moves, you could sense folks shifting uncomfortably in their Herman Miller Aerons from New York to Nappanee.

It's hard to imagine either of the biggest companies going so far as to pull the plug on new comics production, but all sorts of moves are on the table for as long as we're in an era where even arbitrary decisions made by human beings are treated as if they're inevitable choices made by unstoppable, infallible profit machines. The end result is just as real for the businesses and individuals that feel the impact of drastic change if something is done because of a perceived bottom line agreed upon by dozens of knowledgeable corporate officers or if there's one person with power that has ambitions for a bigger vacation house and a different title on her business card. No one would be that surprised to wake up one morning to find either big company announcing some drastic, new approach to how they're doing business -- No more freelancers! We're shutting down New York! We're ending page rates! -- and in fact, those companies would have vocal defenders no matter what they chose to do. That can't be a comfortable situation for people that want to plan at least a part of their lives negotiating the opportunities these companies provide. It's not a comfortable situation for anyone.

2. The Direct Market of hobby and comics shops continues to gray while suffering from infrastructure difficulties and general neglect.
The success of the New 52 initiative was overwhelmingly celebrated as a victory for DC Comics and its general players, primarily two of their big editorial three: Dan DiDio and Jim Lee. Curiously, relatively little was made outside of retail circles about how the successful re-launch -- short-term gains or not -- provided a showcase for the potency of a motivated Direct Market given the kinds of comics it wants to sell. What the DM does efffectively and what it doesn't is a vastly complicated set of issues, of course. For instance, I would argue that the comics shops moved past any real, collective desire to even try to sell alternative and independent comics long before the publishers of those comics by necessity switched some of their focus to the book trade. Others disagree.

Some broad strokes seem more clear to me than others, though. It seems stores continue to close at least as much as I personally hear about them opening. I stopped by a shop a couple of weekends ago that had closed since I'd last visited. The person with me remarked that this was the third time this had happened when they were in the car with me. I remain unconvinced there's a generation of younger retailers springing up to replace that first generation of owners whose stores remain the backbone of that market. A few of the bigger names I can think of in terms of young retailers emerging the last decade have already moved on to other jobs. There seem to be more great shops with anniversaries in the 15-year-plus range than emerging ones of quality with birthdays in the single digits. Additionally, despite a major starving of entire geographical regions that was hurried along by Marvel's insane Perelman-era sales strategies, there seems to be very little in the way of major, focused initiatives to get more stores opened in the places that don't have them. Functionality remains an issue as well. Despite their market dominance, Diamond still doesn't seem able to provide basic "we'll get these comics in the stores by this agreed-upon date" service unless driven furiously in that direction Iditarod style by one of its major partners. Rational release schedules isn't even a priority for most publishers now, and if it became one I don't think the system is there on the distribution end to carry it out.

As much as I love comics shops, I don't think traditional comics retail is everything. I'll continue to support publishers and creators making work available through every platform available to them without protecting that content for any on market segment. Still, I think the Direct Market has proven value that's under-appreciated and under-utilized even -- especially! -- by those folks that see the greatest benefit from what they do. This is a constant, consistent wound, and the patient has more gray hairs in its beard than it used to. We may not notice right away when things finally turn septic.

3. The editorial cartooning field has yet to reach its bottom in terms of sustainable staff positions.
Editorial cartooning doesn't have a lot of crossover with the comic book market on which many comics people exclusively focus. The field has a rich artistic tradition and, moreover, it's a place where those with comics-making skills used to find comfortable employment for years and years. That's gone now. Whereas ten years ago people predicted the then astonishingly low three-figure number of staffed editorial cartoonists might be cut in half -- and were usually deemed alarmists for suggesting something so severe -- it's possible now to suggest with a straight face that the field could contract to about a dozen full-timers as soon as ten years from now. In addition, outside of a few devoted service sites that spotlight individual cartoonists, no one's really found that key to exploit and use a cartoonist in an on-line interface that seems to work for the artist and for the publication, something that you think someone on a standard newspaper would have figured out by now if it can be figured out.

In a way, the decline in editorial cartooning positions reflects the broader decline of the newspapers that publish them. It's not the skill of the individual practitioner or the appeal of cartooning generally that's been diminished, or at least that isn't the telling factor; what we've seen instead is a deterioration of the relationship between what one is perceived to get in terms of bottom-line gain from the amount of investment involved. Following a year when a reigning major award-winner takes retirement in Jim Brown fashion and no one blinks twice, shuffling staff-position editorial cartoonists right out of the deck is a trend that might even ramp up in frequency. The way it stands now, this field isn't coming back -- not as a field, anyway. Even if you have no investment in editorial cartooning at all, you should notice how a once-mighty cartooning industry can shrink in drastic fashion in very little time, without a recognizable bad guy onto which one may easily lay blame.

4. Whatever on-line market emerges will likely work in drastically different ways from the high-profit-per-piece paper market on which the current industry players depend.
All of the comics industries have played a remarkably effective delaying game in terms of not settling on a model or three for digital comics and letting those new businesses develop into a status quo. In fact, you can almost name as many models that have yet to be tried than as have been put into play. For instance, it seems like some sort of subscription access model on a grander scale might work; it also seems like many companies are sitting on -- or have natural access to -- a wealth of older material that would by their nature circumvent concerns about directly competing with new product in more lucrative forms.

I imagine they've avoided some traps this way. Do comics companies really want to commit to a 99-cent price point and lock themselves out of a $1.99 price point if the latter becomes an attractive enough alternative to be the status quo moving forward? Do those companies want to commit to any kind of low price point if the nature of comics buying is slack enough generally it's going to rely on the ability of companies to discount in order to goose sales in certain segments? Comics has also largely avoided the trap of hastening the decline of more profitable business models in order simply to be out ahead on all the things they're told they have to be ahead on -- in terms of the TV networks, comics is more CBS and its old-people shows and syndicated-to-cable series and less NBC and its on-line initiatives and wholly owned cable networks. I'm not saying one way or the other is the right way in either that comparison or for comics, just that there are probably arguments to be made about certain positives that result from a conservative position.

What we may be seeing, though, isn't some wise old card player declining to show his hand but a slightly worried Vegas newbie holding a bunch of random, single-digit cards all of the same suit. Like the newspaper and media-information industries before it, comics has come to depend on a consistently, reasonably high profit margin by item and a monopoly on a certain entertainment experience that's guaranteed a core level of interest even in the most fallow times. That monopoly has been hit hard by video games and movies, but comics is unique enough in terms of the nature of its entertainment experience both in the reading and collecting, as well as wholly branded in terms of certain characters, that at least some semblance of an audience has been maintained throughout. Yet with the biggest shift in comics sales over the last 15 years being there is no longer a real bottom for any publisher, and that comics may now routinely perform under sales points that were scoffed at as a structural impossibility as recently the mid-1990s, and with a widespread denial in place that price points really do seem to matter, a guaranteed core may no longer be there for comics -- both in terms of people supporting each and every title and in terms of folks following a specific property across a variety of expensive formatting choices.

The delay in a fuller commitment to digital publishing doesn't just allow a vacuum into which illegally scanned comics may expand as much as they're able. It also means the development of certain expectations regarding that market and what value means in same. That may run at cross purposes with the amount of profit necessary to keep the current infrastructure in place. While the proper reaction to that development may be "Good," that kind of change, its degree and drastic nature, doesn't come without cost.

I'm additionally curious whether or not comics has cut itself out of a bigger piece of the overall digital experience by this delaying tactic, that reading comics through digital means could have been a bigger, more ingrained part of everyone's time on-line by now and will always lag behind as a result. You can see with traditional webcomics how much good will from their readerships has been developed over the years by virtue of those comics getting in there and becoming a part of those readers' experiences, relationships that are now paying off with direct funding initiatives. I'm worried that's a club with a limited membership list in the same way that Cerebus-style Direct Market self-publishing only worked for a certain kind of cartoonist. But hey, at least those cartoonists were working that room. The rest of comics continues to fall behind, raising the ante in the hopes that they won't be asked to show their hand. The least-discussed possibility of a future for digital comics is that it doesn't develop the way it could, the way that many assume it has to. That may make certain pundits happy, but I think it would make for a much poorer art form 10, 20, 30 years from now.

5. We sort of expect people to be broke now, and this is a relatively flush period. What happens when it's not?
I'm one of those people that believes comics' switch from a largely middle class- and lower middle class-dominated profession to a feast and famine rodeo in terms of who makes what money and how is going to have long-term implications of the mostly distressing variety. When we see a creator fail to participate in the windfall of profits that comes with the cross-media exploitation of something they created or co-created long ago, we're rightly concerned about the system that got that creator from point A to point B. The bigger issue may be that we have more creators now -- more people involved in comics generally in a variety of ways -- that simply don't have that profitable creation putting their personal plight into bold relief.

We have young people out there that are devoting years of their lives and some a massive investment into educational opportunities with a potential end result being their making the kind of mini-comics and self-published work that will never sell more than few dozen copies. We don't hear as much about older cartoonists and comics-makers that drew series for publishers that no one talks about anymore, but they're out there, and I can't imagine the course of their professional lives was always improved by pursuing what turned out to be severely limited opportunities. We also have people that have followed certain comics initiatives in an editorial or development capacity that never quite came off, web cartoonists that need a white knight in making a $4000 Kickstarter as opposed to putting together a $40,000 one in a few days, strip cartoonists that struggle for years on what used to be seen as a young twenty-something's salary for the exact same amount of work turned out by a Garry Trudeau while having to explain to family members that are familiar with The Jim Davis Story that syndication does not equal winning the lottery, and collectors that are somehow still banking on someone buying all of their stuff and putting it in a museum somewhere.

I don't think this is anyone's fault; in fact, I think casting about looking for a bad guy can be a waste of time. I just think there's something to a generational shift from an industry to a not-industry with which there needs to be a fuller reckoning. The delay in readjusting our expectations to realize the potential costs of spending this much time on something that may not lead to reasonable financial return has real-world, direct implications on a lot of folks' lives. If the only thing keeping us from a more rational, clear-headed look at things is our potential hurt feelings and the fact that roping people in to work for not much in the way of pay benefits folks at various points further up the economic ladder, maybe we should work on that. I'm not sure any of us are prepared for the widespread human cost of what the Dream Of Comics Partway Fulfilled will mean to generations of comics people now moving into their 40s, 50s and 60s. Many of us may be forced to learn from our own example. I hope that's not you. I hope that's not me.
posted 6:00 am PST | Permalink

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