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

November 3, 2008

More On Comics and Recessions, 2008


A few of you took the time over the busy Halloween, pre-election weekend to send me a thought or two on this essay concerning some of my general thoughts regarding how comics might feel the effects of the ongoing recession. I'm greatly appreciative. I'd love .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and will include it here.

Kiel Phegley

Something that's been popping into my mind for a few weeks now that I thought I might share in hopes that a smarter person can tell me if I'm anywhere near an actual issue that impacts comics:

One result of the recession that I think may have an impact on comics which no one has lit upon too much is the idea that the American dollar is dropping in value as opposed to other forms of currency. Now, this may have changed a lot since the last time I saw anything in the news about the dollar's value as more and more countries get sucked into the financial crisis, but from my understanding, the dollar is worth a lot less than it used to be in general and specifically is worth less than other units of currency it once dominated (the Euro comes to mind). Certainly everyone knows that such fluctuations change the business in terms of price point for product, costs of printing and shipping and other bottom line issues, but one area I find these changes are likely to effect is the talent pool working on books.

I had a mind-blowing conversation a few months back at Toronto's Fan Expo with a freelance artist who works for one of the majors on how the change in the dollar's worth was affecting how much work creators up north could receive and how much they'd get paid for such work, and I think that Canadian creators would be on the safer side of such changes. A recent item on non-payment in Rich Johnston's column got me thinking about Latin American artists who freelance by way of English-speaking agents on books where publishers don't consider creative teams as much of a selling point as event hook. In that case, it was a Superman movie tie-in, but there are plenty of other books where foreign talent has been employed because their page rates are way cheaper thanks to the exchange rate and I'd assume the work is finished quickly. Some of Dynamite's licensed books come to mind as does DC's World War II fifth week event from a few years back.

As the American dollar weakens, there seems to be potential for massive changes starting with which creators get work or don't get work, how many additional titles publishers can create when there's a dearth of cheap international talent and how a lessening of product changes what retailers are able to pull in profit-wise. Now, I can't make any claims to what those changes will be because I haven't got clue one on specifics, but I'd think that even a relatively small part of the marketplace is worth keeping an eye on.


Sean T. Collins

My gut instinct is that sales of monthly comics/individual issues will drop as readers switch to downloading them for free and/or waiting for the trade. You may actually have seen this start happening given how many months this year saw overall sales drop compared to the same month in 2007. If I were the big companies I'd develop an iTunes or eMusic or Netflix/TiVo pay-to-download service pronto (like, yesterday), and hope that you can get enough fans into that habit early enough to stave off wholesale defection to the pirates. Heck, for a flat fee I'd happily subscribe to some sort of service to read a certain amount of new Marvel or DC books online every month, and I say that as someone who hasn't bought a floppy from either company since 2004. Surely there's an audience out there.


Joe Casey

Big point you make here...

<< 5. A third reason comics may be at greater risk right now is demographics. People between 35 and 45 years old react differently to general economic downturns than people between 12 and 17 years old do. >>

imageI feel like that demographic is the main audience for Marvel and DC books. Mainstream superhero comicbook readers. But forget about linking it to the economy... I think it's more the fact that, by now, readers of that demo HAVE SEEN IT ALL. Secret Invasion is just another alien invasion... Final Crisis is the 4th or 5th "crisis" that those readers have seen in their lifetime of reading. How many Avengers or Justice League lineup changes are they going to get excited about? How many character "deaths" are really going to impact their lives, after seeing so many of them?

I've fallen into this trap myself as a creator... just because *I* get a kick out of writing something for the first time that harkens back to the books I read as a kid doesn't mean the readers won't respond with a "been there, read that" mentality. I've loved the times I've spent writing, essentially, comfort food for my own generation of readers... but I can't say it did much to push the medium or its future.


Lou Wysocki

I just finished skimming your piece today on comics and recession. I'm going to have to go back and reread it slower to digest everything you are saying.

I just wanted to make a couple of observations:

imageOn #4: I live in Connecticut. Not a very big state, and not very large cities, in terms of population. But looking at the various circulation reports showing up in comics this year frightens me: there are cities and towns in Connecticut that have larger populations than some major comics have print runs (for example, there are more people in the immediate Manchester, CT area than there are copies of an issue of Daredevil being published in any month). Go to a state college or university, and you can hand out a copy of one of the X-Men titles to every student, and there would be none left for the rest of the country, let alone internationally. I'd love to see some industry wide comment on that.

I work in the investment division of a major insurance company here, and for the first time in my life, I am scared for my job and my future. I'm 50, and have been reading and collecting comics for over 45 years. I get what I like, and rely on others to point out what I may wish to read (the same thing for music -- those sampler magazines such as Uncut, Mixmag or the late CMJ with their attached discs point me in new musical directions). I get what I like, and will still do so in these economically frightening times, not knowing if I will still have a job tomorrow. I need my entertainment: books, comics, magazines, music, and DVDs (I'm not a movie goer, and dispise being in large groups of people where I am not in control) -- if I didn't have the things that make me happy, I'd be curled up in a fetal position all the time right now (not to say it hasn't happened a few times in the last two weeks...). I keep asking myself, "What can I do to help the industry?", and the only thing I can do right now is continue to support it with my hard-earned dollars. I live in a town with a great comics store, with friendly people who know me and my tastes, and I'm in it with them for the long haul. I think everyone out there needs to ask what they can do, also.


Eric Knisley

One good way for people to respond to the economic downturn and possible hardships in obtaining comics is to quit *buying* and start *making*. I've been making and publishing my own comics for nearly forty years now, and there are very, very few comics I've ever bought that give me a fraction of the pleasure that I get from putting pen to paper. And it's the cheapest hobby you're gonna find this side of train-spotting -- all you need is pencil, paper and ideas.

My experience at the recent 24-hour comic day at Chapel Hill Comics really drove it home for me. That was the most fun I've had in a long time -- just sitting and working alongside other folks doing the same, all of us making comics (and the book came out pretty well, too). None of us are Alan Moore, but we all had a great time, learned some stuff, made some friends. That's not bad! And it only cost us just some ink and paper, and some time. There's a whole hand-made DIY revolution going on these days, and for good reasons -- stuff you make is better than stuff you buy. Making comics is more fun than buying them, and cheaper; you don't have to go anywhere; it's something you can do with any of your pals any old time. Sieze the means of production!


Noah Berlatsky

I'm not an expert on either the comics industry or the economy. But mere ignorance never stops a pundit...

I think a lot of your points were very well taken; basically, anything entertainment oriented is in big trouble, print is in even bigger trouble than that, and comics are quite possibly up a largish creek with holes in the bottom of the boat and giant carnivorous mollusks rising from the deep and bashing the industry on the head with paddles.

I think monthly comics and the direct market have looked like less and less viable business models for some time. If we have the serious recession that it looks like we're going to... I don't know. It seems like that could be all she wrote, pretty much. Especially if, as seems likely, Hollywood suddenly decides super-hero movies are no longer what the public wants, I think the big two could be in serious trouble.

Editorial cartoons are doomed. Newspaper comics probably are too, for all intents and purposes.

I think manga is in a much better position to survive a recession with some contraction, but without necessarily apocalyptic consequences. Even if bookstores fold, manga seems like it could switch to online sales without a ton of trouble. I think manga is also in a position where it's still reaching new audiences, at least potentially. Certainly, there's room for manga audiences to age; for people who started reading manga young to get older and keep reading while their place is taken by younger readers. A recession will take a chunk out of this, of course, and if it's actually a depression all bets are off for everybody; but in general I think the recession may actually be a moment for manga to solidify it's hold as other parts of the industry fall by the wayside.

So there you are. Lots of predictions which can be used to mock me ten years down the road when direct market stores are on every block and manga is but a fond memory...


Tucker Stone

Kiel's statement has a lot of interesting stuff in it--I'm remembering that Blog@newsarama also wrote about the impact of a weakening dollar regarding the different cover price question for Canadian sales last year--but I'd wonder what's going to happen for international sales now that the dollar has been steadily rising against all other global currencies. Then again, I'm totally in the dark about how much American comics companies earn from non-US sales, but with the dollar moving the way it is (up and not down), every American commodity will end up with diminishing returns. (That's assuming that some basic rules of economics still apply.) The change in outside hiring could be really interesting though -- there's got to be some Japanese manga-trained artists seeing the change in currency as an opportunity to make inroads on American relationships whereas it wouldn't have been as profitable last year. Where they end up working though, that's completely unknown. More French and Latin American cartoonists couldn't hurt the American market, that's for sure.

I'm also curious -- and I imagine this will take longer to play out--how the Google Books settlement last week changes things. With an American based official books registry starting up as part of the lawsuit, it's going to be far easier then it is even now for portions of literature (fiction & non-fiction) to be viewed for free online. I don't know whether comic books are part of that deal or not, but since books about comics are, I doubt the rules exclude New Mutants and Capote In Kansas -- they probably just aren't scanned in yet. But after they are, then it seems likely they'll end up in a similar position to music, where the ease and legality of free portions of the product lends the black market torrenting a sense of acceptability. I know you're not a fan of that, but the Google Books registry is setting up what seems to be a relatively tolerable form of rights management and royalty distribution. That part may see a growth in sales for comics online, as long as the publishers don't try to charge the print-version price. From a completely personal standpoint, the amount of hits my own blog gets from the barely finished Google Books engine far surpasses anything on the site that's about comics. A lot of people seem to be using the engine, and I'd imagine that when it has more comics on it, a lot of people will be using it for that as well.

I'd imagine you were hoping for smarter responses then mine, sorry about that.

How does Marvel fund their big-budget movies? This sort of stuff has to be in their stock papers, I imagine. But there hasn't been a big comic book movie (a Dark Knight or an Iron Man) since the financial crisis, and I think that's going to be a big indicator when one drops. The success or failure of the next couple comic movies will probably be a big factor in whether or not movie companies are able to get the kind of funding necessary for the production (and more so, the marketing) of another Iron Man type film. Venture capital, banks, corporate financing -- all that stuff is dead right now, and will the comics movies fad/trend/whatever it's called still be a viable one by the time they get back to making 300 million dollar flicks?


Marek Bennett

Thanks for posting your thoughts on the economy... It's clear to see how financial troubles will effect people's spending habits, but I'm glad you're looking beyond that. Here's what I thought while I read your notes:

As a self-syndicator and a teacher, I'm looking at the education side of comics. Grant funding seems to be drying up at the state level (at least here in New England), but that doesn't mean the market (i.e., the willing, wanting audience) for comics and comics programs is drying up. Far from it, in fact, as schools slash their art departments and look for curricular integration and outside specialists to bring new experiences into the classrooms... There will always be young (potential) readers, there will always be schools with mandates to teach interesting content, librarians looking for quality work that kids read, teachers looking for cheap and flexible new ideas that make their students sit up straight and say, "Wow!" These non-commercial markets can be incredibly rewarding and creative!

People might not have an extra $4 to spend on Super-Chimpy #185, but they do have eyes, brains, and imaginations. If we don't get comics (and pens and paper) into those young eyes and hands, someone else will fill them with video game controllers and we'll lose the next generation of readers and creators. Like Eric Knisley says, let's show people how to "start making"...


Oliver Townshend

I don't believe that the recession will have a material affect on businesses that are well run and managed, although it may accelerate some trends. Marvel and DC are running a legacy business which will slowly wind down as its readers get older, but diversification can help them, into movies, graphic novels, web comics etc. while still publishing pamphlets. As long as their work is entertaining, people will try to buy it regardless, much the same as they might continue to go to movies or purchases DVDs, although reduced incomes will obviously have some effect (i.e. if you lose your job you can't buy comics). In this regard, I don't think DC will survive on its current trend, but such a trend can easily be reversed. I can't comment on the Manga publishers, although I suspect that the same applies, they just have a younger audience. As to the independents, they may have the best chance of survival in the future, as they may (or may not be) the area where new comic trends appear. Its a bit hard to categorise such diverse companies as Fantagraphics, D&Q and smaller one comic businesses.

I'd expect that any comic publisher that doesn't carefully manage their business will be in trouble. In order to profitable, they will have to be profitable in comics, profitable in graphic novels (bookshops and comic shops), profitable in web comics, with the possibility of movies. Overseas sales may also be a bonus. It doesn't even have to be a large profit, as long as a small profit can be made each time. Any business that can pull off all four will be very profitable. Missing one may be sufficient for survival, but missing two will probably doom the company unless it pulls out of those areas it can't make a profit in. This is probably why Marvel are looking at $4 comics, because the elasticity of demand (i.e. readers won't give up X-Men) probably means revenue will rise, and smaller print runs will mean slightly lower costs. There will of course be a slight decline in sales, but possibly not that much in advance of the long term decline, provided the product is compelling. Personally I find the thought of a $4 comic (and the collapse of the Aussie dollar) enough to make me give up on half the comics I buy, since I can expect they will still be available as graphic novels, but that still mean profits for the publisher.


Laurie Thomas

Great points and really love reading the response comments to.

I'm more of a manga reader so here are my thoughts:

Manga seems to do the reverse of what traditional American mainstream comics do. Manga seems to completely chatter to the young readers while chopping off older readers. I've started reading manga in 9th grade when I had no money, now that I am 20 and have some cash I find little to no manga that I would like to read.

When manga does chatter to an older audience, not including older manga works like Tezuka, it goes into an extreme niche like cute moe for men or gay porn for girls. Niche comics have their place but when you only have a choice between high school drama of the week and loli porn, there's not much left for us who want some thing a bit avant-garde. As you've stated niche entertainment only takes a few people to stop buying before it collapses. Comics may not collapse, but there will be a lot of tightening.

I don't know to what extent this move happens but I do find that many manga readers start to pick up other comics, especially idies, for what they used to find in manga. Which is a good comic from a sincere and devoted creator(s).

For the bookstore tightening, well, I've long stopped going to the book store to check out new books. They never stock the ones I want and I don't feel like paying the full 10-13$ of a book that the creator nor publisher get the full amount of. The books that I want have weird schedules like coming out only once every .5-1 year and I have to order them online anyway.

Still now, I dont like to drop 10$+ for something that I've never heard of nor seen any samples. Many publishers don't put any samples (or good samples. give samples that relate to the story, not the set up) online and if its not at the book store for me to view, then I'm not buying.


Tim O'Shea

"It's great when cartoonists make money from their labor. It's even better when it's through a new economic model that should give us hope for the possibility of more to come."

I think the creators to watch are the ones that are looking to design their work for Iphones, but still looking for an eye for publishing (ie Dean Haspiel). I'm not saying the Iphone/Android is the only path ahead for new media outlets. But technology has the potential for taking us into uncharted territory, while still keeping a hand in traditional media outlets when creators choose them.

The music industry is nothing like the comic book industry, but the music industry is enduring major changes in how they do business. The number of independent music stores is dwindling. Some musical acts are leaving (or being abandoned) by record companies that they've been with for years.

Consider this little bit of data I heard on Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions' October 24, 2008 show:
"A year after they started their "pay-what-you-want" experiment for In Rainbows, Radiohead has finally revealed the results. It was a complete success. The album sold 3 million copies at various prices, as well as 100,000 box sets at $81. And, the band gets to reap nearly all the profits since they don't have to divvy it up with a record company or middle man..."
I don't know enough to say who are the Radioheads of the comic book industry.

I think it will be interesting to see how many folks with disposable income (a dwindling market share) will buy Kramers Ergot 7. Are there going to be less orders than there might have been six months ago? Maybe.


Queenie Chan

I just read your column on The Comics Reporter about comics and the recession, and want to thank you for giving everyone your thoughts on this topic. I read through the reader's comments too, and want to add my own 2 cents into the debate. As an international manga creator who has collaborated with a big-name author (Dean Koontz for In Odd We Trust), my position is not really typical of most creators, which s why I find it worth discussing.

Firstly, to chip in on what Kiel Phegley said about the falling American dollar. Speaking as an Australian, the US dollar HAS been falling, but recently, so has the Australian dollar. The US dollar has been falling steadily since about 3 years ago, and was at its lowest to the Australian dollar (almost 1:1) just before the current financial crisis hit. However, in the past few weeks, the Australian dollar dropped suddenly and sharply, and things are back to the levels it was 3 years ago. It's a bizarre situation (not that I'm complaining), but it shows that we live in very volatile economic times, and while the US dollar is falling, other currencies are falling against it too. If this is a recession, then it's probably going to be a huge global one.

Secondly, while In Odd We Trust was meant to be an experiment, it seems to be one that worked. It sold very well, enough to warrant a second book. I'm not sure what it says from a publishing point-of-view though... perhaps it says big-name authors like Dean Koontz are recession-proof, but anything mainstream with a large and loyal fanbase usually is. That In Odd We Trust was drawn in manga-style may or may not be significant. Manga is easier to read and accessible to someone who's never read comics before, and perhaps that's what helped the book sell. All I can say is, at this point in time, this seems to be a formula that works. Big-name authors are likely to hover above the economic crisis, but the mid-list authors are likely to be the ones who will suffer. My greatest fear is that everyone will jump on the bandwagon and flood the market with product, much like what happened a few years ago with manga.

posted 7:15 am PST | Permalink

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