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

September 20, 2009

Five Basic Ways Comics May Have Changed Over The Last Five Years

I've been reflective this last week as CR went past its five-year anniversary, specifically on how the industry has changed in that time. I'm also preparing my initial notes for some end-of-decade thoughts and analysis, some first thoughts that will hopefully lead to deeper, more sustained, better-supported work in December and January. I thought I might share them here in their initial form in order to receive any feedback some of you might be willing to share, or to spark similar thoughts of your own when the proper time comes.

(I do have worries about sharing these ideas here in unfinished form. When recently preparing a worksheet for what I assume will be many end-of-decade discussions about the great comics works, it seems as if everyone and their mom took something I was making for people to use in their Top Comics Of The Decade lists as a top comics list of its own. "I think MY comic deserves to be somewhere on your stupid list" was the outright or hidden message in far too many of my e-mails for a couple of weeks there. It's a worksheet. What's funny is that not only is this not a top comics list, many of the comics on that list right now give me the hives and are some of the worst comics I've read this decade. It's just that I can conceive of some people disagreeing with me and thinking they're great, so I wanted to give folks a chance to consider them and make up their own mind. To repeat: it's a worksheet for making lists; not a list. There's plenty of time for that later.)

Anyway, here are some initial thoughts on what's different now than when CR started in September 2004. I hope you'll accept them in the spirit that they're offered.

1. People Died Because Of Cartoons
In 2005 the newspaper Jyllands-Posten decided to call attention to a story about an author apparently unable to find an illustrator for a religiously oriented project by publishing a dozen pictures of the prophet Muhammad from a dozen different cartoonists. The initial burst of protests about the impropriety of the newspaper in doing so given the overall political climate in Denmark and the newspaper's role as an important cultural institution soon went underground and eventually reemerged as international tragedy. Carried forward by demagogues who went so far as to manipulate imagery so that the cartoons included much more obviously upsetting visuals, the issue crawled back to light in early 2006 with economic force, political force and ultimately violence. Over 100 people died in related protests and actions. It took several weeks for the Danish Cartoons Controversy to stop being a front section of the newspaper story, and it not only occasionally flashes back into the news when, say, a cartoonist involved is threatened with assassination, it remains a nasty and unhealed background wound that informs any number of similar or related political and cultural stories.

I think the Danish Cartoons story is important by the standard measure we bring to events: how it ended lives, how it disrupted politics, how it caused money to be moved around and how its impact has lingered. The rest of the world learned about the seriousness with which several cultures view cartoon art. Journalists debated the responsibility of newspapers in terms of how to behave vis-à-vis stunts or events related to important issues and also how to inform their readership when things get potentially scary. Many failed outright to meet their journalistic obligations, including some that have tried desperately since to fold the entire set of mad and disappointing actions into a more comfortable and flattering narrative. It's been an amazing story.

2. Newspapers Began Their Fade
There were always signs that newspapers weren't what they used to be, but until the last five years, those stories in comics terms usually concentrated one things like there not being any two-newspaper towns and all the competitive advantages this brought to comic strips, or syndicate fees being frozen at a level that made the comics kingpins of years past richer men when appearing in fewer newspapers. Those who depend on the health of newspaper for comics revenues are almost nostalgic for those days right now, as newspapers cut staff like mad – staffed editorial cartoonist positions may number less than 40 – and seek every possible way to save money here and there and negotiate on-line content. Many simply closed.

So what happened? No one knows yet, but we can all guess. I think the best way to describe it is two fold. First, that newspapers lost their monopoly on display advertising and classified advertising revenues just as those things enjoyed a significant overall decline in several markets. Second, that the apparatus designed around the newspaper's delivery of information was poorly constructed in terms of a generational and technological shift just about everyone should have seen on the horizon.

As for causes, I'm with those who point out that newspapers have been so profitable for so long that suddenly being less profitable or even losing money has made many of those who have had to make decisions as to how react feel like the Monopoly Man being dragged from his limo and beaten with sticks. Newspapers made a choice with those profits to pursue strategies in terms of customer service that have one by one been subsumed into other media.

They also failed to plan for lean times. The primary newsroom culture in North America isn't one of liberal bias but of indolence. In many newsrooms the appearance of new technologies did not bring with them adjustments in staff or expectations for daily production, which was fine for as long as the profits kept rolling in. The competitive nature of the profitable comics syndicates meant no feature with even a modest client list was ever abandoned; there have been great strips and hugely popular ones that have come along since the form's heyday but few that were both of those things and even fewer that felt like something concrete and different from a leviathan made up of Grandpa's church pew humor. Even the best strips – and there are so many good ones – sometimes feel like your favorite comedian slipping in a smart joke or two from their supporting role on a bland sitcom. Mostly, though, there's a feeling of doom -- even as cartoonists successful in this area make payments on huge homes and fast cars -- that there simply aren't enough eyeballs to keep the whole enterprise going for too much longer, the moves to providing material on-line have been somehow rash and too late in coming, and the long, long party that is a living to match the skill provided may come to an end.

3. Iron Man Made $585 Million Worldwide
It's not crazy to suggest that the recent big-company moves involving Marvel's purchase by Disney and DC's restructuring in a way that favors brand management are both due to Marvel's Summer 2008 blockbuster movie Iron Man. For Marvel it suggested that its catalog of characters wasn't split into surprising but sturdy franchises like Blade and big-name, summer-defining pop culture icons like Spider-Man, but may yield opportunities to combine the two. For DC it suggested that maybe working one or two characters -- no matter how successful any one of those movies might become -- could be seen as leaving food on the plate.

A key difference in the two moves is that no matter how you spin it, and it will continue to be spun, someone at DC moved from their present job in order to make room for new people and that's not the case at Marvel. This difference brings with it a form of implicit criticism. I'm certain without looking that someone from Warners has already used the phrasing that there was nothing wrong at DC, per se, and that they want to make things even better. I'm sure of it. I'm also not sure you can believe them, not all the way, and I imagine as more general statements of value get out into the public, you'll be able to compare them to DC's strategies and find things that may be changed.

In fact, I think if you look at the way each publishing company is oriented towards supporting TV shows and films and new media and videogames, Marvel clearly makes more sense that way. Marvel's ability to make higher-profile comics hits of titles like Thor (a notoriously difficult title) and change its line-wide focus from X-Men to the Avengers a few years in advance of Marvel film priorities shifting in that same way seems a bit more in line with how people in charge of big entertainment companies proclaim they want than some of the bizarre series that have floated to the surface outside of Green Lantern's light at DC. At Marvel, Iron Man is central to many of the past few events. At DC, you're as likely to see a major event with a central role for Donna Troy as you are for Batman. Marvel re-launches its movie-style Avengers title; DC launches a new Red Tornado mini-series. DC's individual creator most in tune with the modern film-driven publishing market seems to be Alan Moore 23 years ago. Marvel seems mostly in the general neighborhood of a publishing business in tune with a movie one if you grant all the difference in detail elements of those two markets will display.

It's a lot more complicated than that, of course. No matter what gets lost in the details, I think a lot of what we're seeing right now is driven by Robert Downey Jr. eating a hamburger, when something profitable became for a few brief moments something exciting, appealing and profitable and seems to have grown in reputation ahead of its very real numbers. I never would have guessed it.

4. Manga: Less A Phenomenon, More A Category

This is an area to which I'll have to return with numbers and an array of opinions from people more informed about its specifics than I am. For now it's a hunch. It seems, at least from my perspective, that the certainty of manga's triumph over everything in the comics world seems much less certain in 2009 than what was argued on its behalf in 2004. Further, I think this is a combination of very real changes to that element of publishing, but also in a scaling back of the rhetoric on its behalf.

Part of this is that you see limits to manga publishing that seemed aberrant in 2004 if you heard of them at all. Many of the popular series of that grand first wave of huge-selling titles are in the later volumes of their production lifetime or are finished outright. Shojo Beat is gone, as are a handful of niche and smaller publishers up to and including ADV. Certain popular genres have failed to gain a semblance of market presence in North America. Some promising individual titles from the first half of the decade trailed off and now seem unlikely to wrap up in translated form. On-line publishing is in its infancy for any number of reasons. Sometimes perception shapes reality. There has also been enough balkanization in North American comics sales avenues, unfortunate in so many ways, that have made manga's success seem less imposing than it has in those markets where it seems to have replaced a wide variety of comics in terms of desperately longed-for display space. No one should ignore manga, but a lot of people in North America have found a way.

Don't get me wrong. Translated manga remains a hugely popular and profitable and artistically rich expression of the comics form. It's just that as a category it doesn't seem to have the weird vibe it still maintained as late as 2004. Back then, the sky seemed the limit as to how many people might start reading this material, for how many years, and, if it was important to you for some reason, how many kids and what kind would soon be enjoying Fruits Basket and how this made the number of people and type of people that liked the latest Elongated Man mini-series look in comparison. It was some rich rhetorical rocket fuel. At this point, we don't have to -- or get to -- imagine a fictional conquest of the American comics market by Asian comics. We can look at the actual conquest. We can look at Naruto sales figures and have an idea as to how big that incredibly impressive audience is.

On the other hand, I could be wrong and the presence of American manga will soon get back to growing with the same speed and certainty once projected for it. Additionally, when digital comics hit the whole cycle could conceivably start over and we could be hearing about hopeless leads and material unsuited for certain types of devices and all the rest of it. For now, I'll enjoy the relative silence. When I think of all the Tezuka that's been translated, for instance, or getting to read Yoshihiro Tatsumi, or experiencing Cromartie High School, I can better appreciate them now for what they have to offer as opposed to what they symbolize, and I think that's a wonderful, positive thing.

5. There's More Internet Now, And It Changes Where We Almost Can't See It
In a thousand different ways, on-line activity in support of comics has changed over the last five years. It's something with which I've only begun to grapple, because so much of it seems incremental and hard to gauge. I have my suspicions, though, and I see some rough confluences.

The Internet has definitely changed since CR started in terms of allowing people easier access to more complex and resource-heavy expressions of comics, their discussion and general information about them. You see a lot more video now, for instance, in support of all sorts of different comics-related activities. The readers who in 2004 and 2005 complained because there was just way too much art on web sites like this one, I don't hear from them as frequently anymore. The major comics-related sites including publishers run massive, image-driven content previews as if it's second nature now. Although the major on-line presences have been a bit slow in embracing audio files as a supplementary way of reaching readers -- ESPN has a podcenter; CBR doesn't, I don't think, although it supports at least one popular such series -- the folding of video into coverage of the industry and its expressions seems to be proceeding in comics at roughly the same pace it has everywhere else that doesn't already generate video for television. Seems to; I don't know for sure.

The print publishers haven't made a major commitment to an on-line expression for comic as one might have predicted in 2004, although that's a sign of the times as well. Illegal uploading of that material for free has, for whatever reason, failed to overwhelm and invalidate the decidedly not-free print publication of those same comics. Although I'd favor a matter of fact commitment to a price point and wide availability while letting the technology shift underneath it and the ramifications for print publication settle wherever they may, I'm not running a major corporation and have few qualifications to do so. I think there will be some choices made here soon. I'm as worried about comics remaining a place where people can make a decent living as they are about comics remaining a source of corporate profits, so I'm happy for whatever steps they take to give them a best chance at both.

On-line comics seem less a wide-open field four years ago than they do now, with fewer big hits than I was being told would be all over the landscape by now, but those that are making it work succeeding in ways that would make first-generation Direct Market print comics self-publishers not named Eastman and Laird jealous. It all still seems to me vastly unsettled, though.

I think the thing that doesn't get explored as frequently that's changed is that people have grown more accustomed to an on-line facet of their lives and that these attitudes gently shape what we'll read and consume and listen to. From about 1999-2003 a lot of comics people enjoyed screaming at each other as their main Internet interaction concerning comics. I think that's less prevalent now, as is the ability where people read a lot of things about comics through RSS feeds for anyone to show up and with a modest effort gain the ability to drive thousands of eyeballs in traffic to a new site they want people to see. Now those efforts are sometimes measured in dozens of hits. It's a million small choices being made and how those choices shape reality that was always the most exciting thing about the Internet, and as much as the on-line options haven't changed in some fundamental ways they can't help but look different as everyone, even comics fans, grow accustomed to these devices.
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