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

November 2, 2008

Two And One Half Dozen Not Very Deep Thoughts On Comics And Recessions


Just thinking out loud. It's on my mind recently.

Something that should be noted right up top is that all of the arguments made and issues raised here are based on the idea of the world moving through a period of sustained economic distress that, as bad as it may get for many folks, is not quite a worldwide economic collapse of the Mel Gibson/George Miller variety. Clearly, arguments about the fortunes of the various comics industries should be treated differently when speaking to a future with 8 percent unemployment than they are when discussing a future with 82 percent cannibalism. Let's please try not to mix the two.

I'm not sure that any of what follows is smart or insightful. Rather than some refined, charged set of arguments on the tip of my fingers I felt I had to get up on the site, these thoughts are more like random, fleeting notions that my refusal to engage made me want to write them all down into place just so I can look at them a bit.

My general, gut take on the years ahead is that the comics industries can be expected to do as well as just about any other entertainment industry currently suffering groundbreaking paradigm shifts in format and presentation. In other words, it's hard to separate the effects of a recession from the effects of the Internet impressing itself on everything, and the interest in comics from book publishers and movie studios. If anything, it should heighten those effects or hurry them along. At the same time, the imbalanced, exploitative structure comics has established for itself over the decades makes for a greater risk of individual hardships along the way for some folks that can ill afford it. I'm neither concerned about nor worried after the size of those strange quarterly cash bonuses Marvel board members have received in the past, but I am worried about the rank and file creators and those whose muses don't necessarily make them candidates to seek out a broader bottom line. I'm not worried about comics dying. I'm worried about their remaining vital and lively and a place for many different voices to be rewarded in ethical fashion for what they do.

In the order they occur to me.


1. Comics clearly aren't recession proof. I would argue they never were. Some of comics' darkest days came during recessionary periods in the '50, '70s and '80s.

2. There are a number of reasons to believe that comics are currently more susceptible than ever before to drastic effects resulting from economic downturn.

3. One reason comics may be at greater risk right now, and this has been noted just about everywhere, is that comic books no longer cost a thin dime. They frequently cost $2.99, and soon may cost between $3.50 and $3.99 for a single issue. Trade collections and original graphic novels commonly sell at price points between $7.99 and $24.99. Specialty volumes can go all the way up to $200. Together I think those figures disqualify comics from any and all assertions based on their being cheap and disposable entertainment. The act of buying comics in the 21st Century is a conscious, expensive and involved consumer choice. It is exactly those kinds of choices that are at risk during times of economic distress.

4. A second reason comics may be at greater risk right now is that overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests a general trend whereby more comics are sold to fewer people. In good times this may have been seen as the basis of a stable situation given the devotion and dependability of those customers. In bad times I'd suggest it takes fewer folks to alter their consumption habits to have a drastic effect on the bottom line. If you're not convinced by this argument, think in terms of local economics.

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. Very few 15-year-olds are going to stop buying media because they lost 23 percent of their retirement money last month.

image6. As an aside, anecdotal evidence suggests that the 1980s generation of readers may already be shifting away from high levels of comics consumption. Nothing has quite replaced that decade's alt-weekly heavyweights like Ernie Pook's Comeek or built upon their foundation in similar hit-making fashion. The recently laid-to-rest newspaper feature Opus was hardly the hoped-for smash some believed might even revitalize newspaper readership. Recent comic book series from mainstream publishers designed to appeal to older readers haven't done as well as hoped. Just because we have more folks reading comic books beyond the age of 17 doesn't mean they're automatically going to read past the age of 35 or 40, or with the same passion and enthusiasm. We also don't know that a younger generation will continue to read comics on-line or with the same fidelity their grandparents displayed in following them in the newspaper. Comics is in uncharted territory reader-wise, and an economic downturn may hasten some trends rather while reversing others. Don't be surprised by the suddenness of some outcomes.

7. A fourth reason comics may be at greater risk right now is that the market appears flooded with product. Today's positive feelings about the number and types of comics being published may not reflect sustainable market validity. Sales may be left on the table by those who can't afford to do so over the long haul. Margins may be tighter and maintaining them may be more dependent on heavy publishing schedules than anyone cares to admit. There's even risk of a boom-bust effect hitting certain agencies within comics.

image8. A fifth reason comics may be at greater risk right now is that certain comics' profitability models depend on sales across categories, a chain of items and merchandise that all need to work together to ensure black ink. This was a danger sign suggested by Dan Didio at Heroes Con in Charlotte last June. An interconnected series of products may not be the strongest model with which to enter into tougher economic times. One underperforming title or item could diminish the returns on a large array of related products, leading to the ever-popular cascading effect. This is true both in terms of licensed product and in terms of product comics themselves. Today's re-launch of Ragman canceled after three issues is clearly not tomorrow's trade, showcase volume and/or absolute edition.

9. Even if you argue that the basic comics transaction is strong -- that people want comics, will always want comics, may want them more if times are bad, and will always find ways to buy them -- comics exists as a network of businesses outside of that core and in partnership with many others. Many of those businesses are likely to feel the pressure of a general economic downturn, which in turn will have an effect on how they deal with comics.

10. Prose publishing may remain infatuated with graphic novels, but publishing's not the healthy, optimally functioning industry people in comics may have projected onto it all these years. Climb into bed with someone, catch their colds. There seems to be a tendency to downplay the effect of huge events in book publishing. Just because Borders closing or something of similar size probably wouldn't be an extinction event for comics publishers doesn't mean it wouldn't be a horrendous blow across the board. Those of us working in or near comics need to be more cognizant of and resistant to the vagaries of prose book publishing.

11. Further, in a period of general economic downturn, it's safe to say that book publishers are likely to rely on tried and true behaviors and strategies that may or may not hold the values that comics industry people and cartoonists largely share. You may already being seeing this in terms of who is receiving contracts and for what projects.

12. The interest in comics as cross-media properties is great, I think. Let's be honest, though: it hasn't always benefited creators. The existence of that brass ring also encourage publishing models that in the long term are unsustainable and in the short term are artificially boosted in a way that drags on publications that could be legitimately successful. This cycle of dysfunction is enabled by a perennially hopeful and sometimes desperate creator class, a few individuals who design companies based on exploiting those hopes, and a widespread industry lack of backbone in calling these things exactly what they are and demanding better, more realistic, and more ethical models. I don't see any way a sustained economic downturn changes things.

13. The ongoing death spiral of American newspapers is likely to continue in a way that should in the next 18 months begin to have a greater and more obvious impact on comic strips. When Richard Thompson talks of his client base and says something along the lines of "I'm just glad there are still 125 newspapers out there," very few newspaper people laugh without some nervousness in there.

14. The lack of a industry-standard strategy for making money from syndicated comics on-line is going to be a huge disadvantage once we get past a certain threshold point in the Internet-focused publication era. Unfortunately, nobody will know when that line was crossed until it's too late.

15. One grumpy old man point that I think may be true, although I say this without rancor or expectation that it should switch back: some solutions folks have embraced that count on exploiting free may weaken the fabric by which that free thing is converted into a not-free thing, and there may come a point not to far in the future when free just leads to more free.

16. While many may argue that comics are much too popular and much too ingrained a part of the newspaper business to ever be in real danger -- and I hope they're right -- a widespread industry downturn can have a negative effect on several newspaper strip syndication practices. It's much more unlikely in tough times that any single syndicate is going to make a move to curtail their reliance on legacy strips, which one can argue weakens the comics page over the long haul just as much as it guarantees certain sales short-term. It's hard not to see the syndicate's business interest coming to play in the recent and what many feel is a creatively dubious decision to offer For Better Or For Worse as an extensively re-drawn do-over. Fees paid to creators for comics are unlikely to increase when newspapers are suffering the way they are right now. Syndicates may launch fewer new features, pay smaller advances, and even drop their minimums.

17. The big issue across the board in the near future may be a body blow to traditional advertising from which many comics have benefited. Declining print ads, a shift in classifieds and a leveling out of on-line ad revenue is at the heart of the newspaper crisis. Print comic books are filled with an astonishingly high percentage of house ads. No one knows the future of on-line advertising and what models that future will benefit.

18. Staffed editorial cartoonist positions are likely to remain in freefall during a general economic downturn. It's in no way radical to think these positions could shrink to as few as two dozen in the next decade, buttressed by a number of independent contractors and niche performers. While editorial cartoons remain valuable to many readers as a general field, many newspapers believe with some reason that staffed editorial cartoonist positions do not justify themselves. That no one from that field has made a strong case that that specific set-up is vital and necessary, I believe to be quite telling. Similarly, while there are promising traffic figures that can be derived from on-line cartoon viewing or animated versions of the same that may indicate a healthy future in the on-line arena, this hasn't progressed much behind a general positive feeling.

19. One positive for comics may be in that certain portions of the comic book industry are clearly lean and mean and already operate as if under economic duress. If there were multiple comics stores in every town over 25,000 people, a period of economic distress might hasten the demise of the less effective stores. If more small comics publishers were staffed by dozens of people who needed to make low six-figure salaries to make comics publishing a viable endeavor, there might be a lot of comics publishers closing their doors more quickly in an emerging down period. Comic strip syndicates tend to have fewer full-time staffers than many local movie theaters. It's hard to see a lot of these companies having fat to cut away in the name of extending profit.

20. At the same time, the leanness of many of comics business may cause them to cut muscle when no fat's available. If a comic shop goes out of business and it's the only comic shop within 50 miles, that's different than when the third comic shop in town goes bust. There's also something to be said -- in fact, we just said it a couple of points up -- against an industry that's willing to contort itself to feign profitability when it's not there.

21. I think in general we can feel better about a smart, comic book industry veteran core of devoted publishers and dedicated retailers and even ensconced book publishing folks than we could ten, twenty, thirty years ago. One way to look at it is that if a general economic downturn means fewer idiotic start-ups with unreasonable expectations and crappy contracts some which boast prime Los Angeles real estate addresses, I don't think anyone outside of those folks' families are going to be greatly concerned.


22. Another potential positive for comics in what could be economic dark days ahead is the emergence of a class of cartoonists making up to six-figure salaries from the sale of endeavors based on or related to their on-line comics. 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. This specific merchandising-driven model is obviously not one that works for a lot of people or one that can be bottled and replicated, no matter how many people lean forward intently during the "make your web site profitable" phase of a convention panel. Yet this reminds us is that the standard should not be the bottom line but the bottom line as it has an impact on the creator's wallet. A model that fails to support a legal department, a procurement-responsible editor's ability to jet across the ocean to have a lunch meeting with a big-name star, and bunch of PR people hectoring a mostly-compliant media into their preferred publicity narrative doesn't have to be a bad thing. One might even argue that comics that fail to support the former way of doing things aren't failures and may just need to shed that old-school infrastructure. That doesn't mean I think the future of cartooning is one model over the other, just that the more possibilities we can place on the table the better, especially during tough economic times. Not only is it good to have as many options out there as one can wish into existence in order that they to match as many cartoonists as possible and all they hope to do, in comics emergent models have frequently forced the previous ways of doing things to reform or at least better justify themselves.

23. Gas prices are down again right now, but I think the late summer's price surge has made clear just how vulnerable comics could be to increased transportation costs over the long term. There's the bottom line of priorities when it comes to spending money: gas trumps comics for a lot of people. Also, traveling what may be a great distance to a "local" comic book shop on a weekly basis may become less desirable if gas prices go back up, and it doesn't take much for an individual's buying habits to be altered for a long period of time. The direct market for comic books depends on expensive shipping practices that could become more so, even prohibitively so for some people. The math for overseas printing and shipping by which many publishers have made affordable books may change drastically.

24. It's also worth being reminded that a lot of comic book convention business counts on both affordable travel and target audiences having money they wish to spend there. Shows with national or international status, shows with a strong regional foundation, and shows that have a tradition of good service and perceived cultural value should do better than shows that are more generic in nature and that count on being seen as national show . Other shows may have problems sooner rather than later.

25. A general economic downturn makes much less likely the pursuit of certain reforms within the industry, increasing the chances for a health care and retirement crisis for cartoonists and industry folk currently in the 45-65 age range.

26. A general economic downturn may lead to more companies grasping for models that manage to benefit them while not necessarily benefiting their partners in publishing. If you want an overall narrative for these companies' move into on-line work, that might be it.

27. I don't know many mainstream comics creators, but if I were one I think I might be scared shitless by rumblings that the comic book format may be in danger. Doing the comics and then collecting that material the trades are a way that more than a few people have made their comics' livings, far more than have made a living just doing original book-length comics.

image28. The one most effective thing you can do as a consumer to increase the pleasure you derive from comics during an economic downturn is to stop thinking of yourself as a consumer that engages the leading edge of books as they come out, but as a reader that simply enjoys comics. Because I bet deep down most of you are the latter. Fold some of your older books back into your new comics reading pile. Buy only what you like and only if you need it. Familiarize yourself with your local library holdings. Trade books with friends. Seek out discounted books and older books out of favor. I had a fun trip to the comics shop recently that was made much better by skipping the new superhero comics I wasn't certain I'd like and buying some old Master of Kung Fu comics by Doug Moench, Mike Zeck and Gene Day I dimly remembered enjoying. I enjoyed those quite a bit, and since they were in my shop's quarter bin, I had an experience similar to the disposable superhero comic book of the week experience that cost me 75 cents instead of $10. It's a big art form with multiple on-ramps. Use them all.

29. I'd hate to be a reeling business that might need credit right now to help right the ship. I think that describes a couple of businesses out there. Things could get bad enough you might see more and more corporate alliances, like DC exercising its Diamond option. On the other hand, there may be opportunities for companies with cash in reserve to make a move or two that could provide comics with overall benefit. For instance, if Reed Exhibitions were looking to add a Chicago or LA comics show to buttress their New York effort, now might be the time to press that advantage.

30. I don't know enough with what's going on with manga to suggest anything about it. That said, I remember a point when it seemed that merely suggesting that manga might not always surpass its growth numbers each and every year until eternity invited a bunch of derisive laughter about not getting manga and dismissing it as a fad. Not only do I love manga, but I think manga clearly reached a saturation point a a few years back where it was clear it was going to be a major publishing concern for some time. I don't think it's sacrilege to suggest manga's clearly not money in the bank according to whatever publishing model one would like to set up for whatever kind of material one would like to publish. What seems likely to me is a casting about for different models by which to bring some of this material to market, conservative and careful publishing by the majors with lots of resources, a publisher or two perhaps bowing out and a slightly more modest feel all around.

I don't know; .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) Send me something and I'll make a post of them tomorrow.


that Captain Tie-In cartoon is I think a Richard Thompson effort I had sitting on my hard drive for no particular reason. I don't have any right to use it the way I did.
posted 7:15 am PST | Permalink

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