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

September 2, 2010

Go, Read: Mark Waid Re-Delivers Harvey Awards Keynote On Copyright, File Sharing & Digital Media

imageMark Waid talks about the speech he gave at the Harvey Awards, a speech that for a variety of reasons has placed the issues swirling around digital publication of comics squarely into the mind's eye of many folks involved in comics. You should read it if you plan on reading comics five, ten years from now.

You might also read David Brothers at Comics Alliance. Even though Brothers' central metaphor is slightly horrifying and problematic, his rhetoric way too certain for an issue that vexes experts in that field, and there's a bunch of individual assertions and summary statements he makes with which I would strongly disagree (and I suspect he's wrong with a couple of things such as how Netflix operates), it's certainly indicative of a general worldview that I think holds sway with a lot of folks, and I've long been sympathetic to his general idea that you just start publishing digitally and see what happens. In fact, I'm sort of unclear why there aren't already a bunch of publisher-sponsored sites that look something like Jordan Crane's, already. There are so many segments of comics that have no profitable life in the comics stores to protect, because they've been shoved out the door -- why aren't they all on-line by now?

I hate posts that are too short to develop a full argument where one is needed, especially my own. I still want to introduce a couple of broad ideas, things to maybe consider while thinking about these issues. So please forgive me.

I think a real issue in play here is that the rise of a new model exposes both how well the mainstream comics publishers have turned a relatively small audience segment into an awesomely profitable revenue source, and how relatively shitty they've frequently acted in doing so. It's not publishing that's in danger, or even, over time, some sort of profit -- it's the attempts to maximize profit in all segmented fields and the way that profit is applied that's at risk. The way these companies are oriented now, divisional profitability becomes important. If the publishing division of a major mainstream comics maker were to see their direct revenues drop by going for free or at a reduced on-line price that cut into the bottom line, while at the same time the value of the IP went through the roof in a variety of tangential spin-off items and in their value as potential sources for cross media adaptation, I bet the creators working in publishing would be asked to take a pay cut to better match the decline in publishing revenues than they would expect a pay raise because of the new TV show and videogames. It's not like mega-corporations need an excuse to redistribute money across their frameworks other than "because we can." To borrow a phrase from my pal Gil Roth, I think I'm making more money this year with CR than they're paying the new actor playing Spider-Man. If you look at the sales numbers, comics' direct market is still relatively healthy in terms of funnybook sales, continues to generally improve via the sales of the trade paperback, and bookstores sales are more of a factor over a ten-year period for sure. So while there are worries about the fragility of the market, and its potential long-term health, they are mostly just worries right now. The market probably doesn't need to respond to its suggested fragility via a race to embrace new ways of doing things, but its actors and agents sure need to keep it in mind when discerning the effects.

Another broad idea is that I think a lot of people suspect/fear that the traditional ways are not up to working with new ways of publishing because it's a system frayed and put into a bad position by years of abuse: bad pricing, erratic scheduling, overproduction, a lack of quality control across the board. It's through that systemic abuse that digital publication becomes a potential extinction-level threat to a certain system of putting comics into comics-readers' hands. Something as basic as coverage is an issue: you can't drive a consumer to a comics store that doesn't exist in a 100-mile radius of his home. There's content issues, too. If you develop a way of storytelling that's dependent on hitting plot points and reveals and twists more than it is the quality of a reading experience, you're susceptible to people looking for the quickest and easiest way to get that kind of fix. If you've come to count on five consumers buying $80 in books a week instead of 40 consumers paying $10, you're more likely to lose a person paying $80 to a way of getting those books without killing her checking account. Comics has unique risks in endorsing a paradigm shift because comics is kind of screwed up.

I agree with Mark Waid that there's no use in being fearful about irrevocable changes in the way things are done. Things are different now, if you think about it. This web site is a wholly different creature than I would have imagined for myself as late as 2001. If the Internet existed in the early 1980s, we would have been subjected to 10,000 jeremiads on both sides of the newsstand/comics shop issue. But among the 100 things I'm not sure about on all the issues that fall under the broad application of implications of digital publishing, I wonder if a lack of fear changes much of anything except the volume knob on the collective sturm und drang, the thinking out loud we all tend to do when we all decide how to orient ourselves to a massive amount of uncertainty. The news story here isn't that Mark Waid made a fine Harvey Awards keynote speech, but that an audience both inside and outside that hall was primed to listen, and consider what was said, and maybe even shudder.
posted 9:00 am PST | Permalink

Daily Blog Archives
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
Full Archives