Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where is the comic business going?

Are we seeing the beginning of the end for the mainstream comic business? Last summer two of the highest grossing films were based on comics but neither Marvel nor DC could translate that into sales - each month there's still barely a handful of titles that sell over 100K copies. They're currently raising prices of select titles to $3.99 which will certainly lower sales. There's no indication they considered smaller price jumps (to $3.25 for example), different quality paper and printing, B&W (made marketable by manga), anthology series also along the lines of manga, or any of several alternatives. (Other than digital which is uncertain and not well done for now.)

But I think their biggest problem--the one that causes all the others--is that they're focusing on the fans. Now that doesn't sound so bad but over the past three decades mainstream comics has created a defensive posture designed to repel outsiders and now that there's the opportunity and interest to reach those outsiders the business is just curling up more tightly. A guy at work and I have been discussing this for months and there's a lot of net commentary so I don't think these are eccentric opinions.

How hard could it have been to put the dozen best Iron Man stories into a tpb and have it in mainstream stores last summer? Instead anybody who walked out of the movie and into Borders' graphic novel section would have been confronted with one of the Essential volumes which isn't quite what they were looking for or tpbs of the current series which is even more confusing. (Is his armor alive? What's SHIELD? All changed now but that was status quo last summer.) There actually are some "greatest" books for Batman but if there was any marketing to take advantage of The Dark Knight I missed it. Over the past few years both Marvel and DC have been successful in getting product (even the "pamphlets" themselves) into mass stores but apparently that's still distasteful to them.

But look at the recent New Krypton storyline. It ran through three DC titles which is frustrating in itself but more bizarre was the decision to include three one-shots as part of the main storyline. Store owners have reported that many interested readers overlooked these one-shots because the marketing just wasn't clear - more to the point is why the one-shots even existed. One of them, the Guardian issue, really had no story that needed to be told or at the most could have taken up a page or two somewhere else. I'm glad a friend let me read these because I would have been annoyed to have paid money for them. In fact it was the sheer awfulness of the Infinite Crisis spin-offs that started me cutting back on mainstream comics.

Or check the increasingly frequent delays in series. The Kevin Smith and Ultimate Hulk vs Wolverine have become almost legendary by now but even big lynchpin events like Final Crisis and Civil War had big delays. The guy who runs my local comic store says that while this may seem somewhat fannish to complain it really does have a direct effect on his business and on the overall sales. Again, is it such a tough task to have all the scripts and most of the art done before starting? Especially with a mini-series this seems inexcusable but it's become SOP. I'm still a little bitter about the Grant Morrison Authority - an enormous publicity blitz that led to a first issue with no apparent connection to the characters, a second issue trickling out months later that I never even saw and then nothing.

Now I do understand what Marvel & DC are trying to do. The big events do indeed drive sales (most of those above-100K titles are event-related) and having the special one-shots and limited series and so forth not only appeal to the collector that's in all of us who read these things frequently but they also allow different types of stories (at least in theory - neither company is in a hurry to invite Bagge or Kieth back into their worlds). For all its flaws I thought Secret Invasion handled this about as well as we can expect: a fairly self-contained main story and then we can pick up any of the spin-offs or related series as we please. (Remember one of the key events in Infinite Crisis being stuck in an issue of Wonder Woman when nobody was reading that series? The manager at my comics store actually told me to just stand there and read it instead of buying.)

It's probably not an accident that the current superhero comics I enjoy the most are the kids series such as Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC (though the latter has been gutted recently). They're usually clever, well-made, contained in one issue and most importantly have that kind of goofy Silver Age vibe that got me hooked all those years ago. This isn't completely nostalgia - I do still want to see a Morrison Authority and love Brubaker and Vaughan's work, Bendis usually, Warren Ellis is finally turning into a decent writer, and the other creators doing something that--I hesitate to even put it this way--is "grown up". I sure don't want to see Ware or Tomine or Brunetti doing superheroes but so far the business is only letting TV writers onto their playground rather than some of the creators who really understand comics. Bagge's Sweatshop was always going to be a limited-appeal title but what if it had been published as a few manga-type books sort of like Scott Pilgrim? Manga and hugely increased distribution opportunities have created the potential for comics to move seriously into the mainstream (again) but so far Marvel and DC (and unfortunately too many smaller companies following their lead) aren't willing to take the leap with different formats or maybe more importantly different types of stories.