Scott McCloud, in his brilliant, highly recommended book, “Reinventing Comics”, discusses (among other things) ways of “Reinventing the Business of Comics”. It is a fascinating study of commerce and how, as the business of any creative industry grows, the quality goes down.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that when money is the driving force of production, creative energy is going to drop like a rock.” says McCloud. “…the high craft impelled by the market machine hides the ever-narrower range of styles, subject matter and themes allowed.”
The comics industry is powered by publishers, retailers, & distributers (where $$$ rules), not by the creators or readers (where quality rules). This is what happened in the 90’s with the speculation boom: Publishers, retailers & distributors realized they could make lot’s of money producing variant books of little quality to a speculation market. What they didn’t realize was that the lack of quality was pushing away long-time readers, and the readers turned elsewhere.
In the book McCloud discusses ways to reinvent the industry to get it focused back on Creators & Readers: “The connection between artist and reader is — and always will be — the one indispensable part of the comics industry”
In the 80’s McCloud (with encouragement from Dave Sim, Eastman & Laird, and others) proposed a “Creator’s Bill of Rights” to strengthen one end of that connection. Whether or not these rights have been realized is another conversation for another time.
And on the other end of that connection he proposes…
A Bill of Rights for Comics’ Readers
1. The right to know what can be bought and why to buy it.
2. The right to buy what we want when we know that we want it.
3. The right to a fair price.
To tackle these areas, I wanted to look at it through the eyes of new readers as well as established readers. My childhood friend and screenwriting partner, Lance, has just started reading comics and it’s given me a great window into the comics industry from a newcomers POV. He shared with me his major issues with the industry and challenges that might keep him from reading comics altogether.
I sat down with two smart thinkers, (and good friends) who are out there making a difference in the industry, not just talking about it, Kevin Mellon (an artist on books such as GearHead, Thirteen Steps, The Athiest, & CUPID) & Van Jensen (a writer & comics journalist who regularly contributes to Publishers Weekly, ComicMix & Comic Book Resources) to discuss these three areas in further detail.
1. THE RIGHT TO KNOW WHAT CAN BE BOUGHT AND WHY TO BUY IT.
Hudson: This first section, I believe is the one section that is at least somewhat covered. There are literally thousands of blogs, websites, message boards, podcasts, & magazines that can all recommend books that you would like. Not only that, but comics readers love talking comics. If you ask them for a recommendation, they’ll come back to you with a 20-page color-coded print out of books you might like and where to start. Comics has an amazing sense of community and, in my experience at least, that community is willing to take you on with open arms.
Kevin: I agree with this, but I do think we have a long ways to go before we’ve reached a sort of… movie-trailer-saturation point with people being aware of what’s out there. They’re always going to be aware of the big stuff. It’s a matter of making people aware of the indy stuff, and the slip through the cracks vertigo/icon stuff that we’re struggling with.
Van: In my experience, comics is, in many ways, a big scattered mess. Previews is the best attempt at a roadmap, but it’s essentially advertising for Marvel and DC with a largely un-navigable back-of-the-book section on SOME of the indies. So you need to read that, and you need to read all those blogs and sites, and you need to know people who know comics… When you think about the work it takes to become a serious comics reader, you start to understand why readers are so passionate.
2. THE RIGHT TO BUY WHAT WE WANT WHEN WE KNOW WE WANT IT.
I’d like to divide this issue up into two areas: A) Where to buy what you want and B) How to find it once you get there.
A) Where to buy what you want.
Hudson: Lance recently got the first volume of Y: the Last Man. He loved it. Wanted to immediately follow it up with the 2nd volume, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Like many new readers, he’s not ready to overcome the stigma and make that jump to comic book stores, so he’s searched all the lcoal BN & Borders and can’t find what he wants.
Kevin: They’re like any other store, order it at the store. A lot of those types of stores are automated in what and how they re-order. They just are not aware that the book is out of stock unless you ask them to check for you.
Van: Or go to Amazon.
Hudson: This is where a new retail strategy would come in. If comics had a great franchise, whether it be part of those Borders concept stores or an independent “pop culture” store, then the industry could make these books available in a non-threatening environment. In the case of the independent pop culture stores it could even turn into something new and cool, creating a community around them.
Kevin: Maybe, but the audience isn’t there. We can only do our jobs well enough, and hope that that influx we all think is coming because of the movies actually hits. But comics are like music. even if the big chains existed in a form that made comics a viable/bigger part of the store, we’d still need the direct market like the music industry still needs mom and pop record stores. you don’t discover new bands at borders/virgin. You discover them when the cool guy at the hole in the wall store tells you whats good, puts it in your hands and even goes so far as to put the record on for you to hear.
That’s what we need more of in comics. People who aren’t afraid to put the product in the customers hands and then tell them why they’d be foolish to leave that store without it. No big chain is going to offer that experience on a wide enough scale to make a dent. They’re lucky if they get employees that even remotely have an interest in anything they sell, let alone in a specialized section of the store.
I do *want* those Border’s concept stores. I very much believe in survival of the fittest and i want comics shops to evolve and change. But I know that costs money, and right now, a lot of shops are subsisting on a loyal weekly customer base that only buys from them. It’s easy to ask for change, but creating an environment, or in our case, an entertainment medium that encourages and allows for them to have the ability to change is another thing altogether.
Van: The big trouble with starting a store like that lies in the complexity and diversity of comics. There are comics for all types of people, which means you’d have to make the store friendly to a wide variety of people. And the type of people that like indie books don’t frequent the same stores as the people who like superheroes or manga, so it would certainly be a challenge to create a retail space that is comfortable to all those groups. I’d like to see that effort made, though, because comic shops are too often very off-putting to non-comics readers, and employees often aren’t good at guiding new readers.
Hudson: There’s also the possibility of new distribution channels through existing stores. There’s no reason why Urban Outfitters shouldn’t carry Cassanova. Or why some TokyoPop books shouldn’t be available in Delia’s or somewhere like that. I think it takes some thinking out of the box.
Kevin: I agree and wish this would come true as well.
Van: Comics distributors and publishers need to get creative, no question.
B) How to find it once you get there.
Hudson: Lance read and liked Watchmen. So, he wanted to find more books from Alan Moore. He goes to BN & searches the graphic novel section, but everything is listed by title, not by author. I think that comics needs to start being an author-centric industry.
Kevin: When the industry decides to polarize and choose to deify one creative attribute over another, I’d agree with you. but until then, you’ll still have people following artists over writers. Which fucks up your thinking. We’re in a writer driven time right now, but all that is due to an across the board editorial shift. It could all change next year. Just need one joe mad/liefeld/ etc. to make it happen. It could stay writer driven for quite a long time, but when you have a team of people creating a book, it’s rather underhanded and shady to dismiss all the names after the writer.
Van: To me, this goes to one of the core challenges with comics, and that is their complexity and unfamiliarity. Like you said, Kevin, comics are an enterprise brought about by a team of creators, and arranging them by the writer’s name would be similar to arranging DVDs by the director. But because comics are so new to the mainstream, you have readers who aren’t sure where to start looking and retailers who aren’t sure where to tell readers to look. Comic shops could do a better job of having employees looking out for new people and offering advice (most employees, I’ve found, are annoyed by people who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of comics). And big book retailers need to bring on more people who know a lot about comics, instead of trying to handle comics the same way they do other books. I really think Borders or B&N could do pretty well with comics if they hired one or two people who really know the industry and could come up with innovative ways to display comics. I do like how Amazon posts features on best graphic novels and has featured “must read” lists and makes it easy to find an author or artist’s other books. Those kind of guideposts are great for new readers, though I’m not sure how to incorporate them into a non-online store.
Hudson: Organization aside, I do think comics should at least head in the direction of creator-driven comics from a marketing perspective. I don’t think that will ever happen for Marvel & DC because their books will always be brand-name driven… they can’t get away from that.
Kevin: Spider-man will always sell regardless of who’s writing it. People die, well-branded products don’t.
Van: I haven’t read Spider-Man in years, but, again, I’m the weirdo here.
Kevin: Right, and we all have to take that into account. We’re the ones who want to get away from the brands, but in reality, the brands are what’s going to bring new readers. We just have to get them to stay.
Hudson: But there’s no reason the independent books aren’t leaning more in this direction.
Kevin: That’s exactly the reason that indy books don’t move that direction. Most guys do want a brand. They just don’t always realize that it should be them and not the product. That’s the move that hopeless and i are trying for. brand ourselves “over” the product.
Van: Good point. The guys who’ve done that — Alex Robinson, Jeff Smith, Craig Thompson, etc. — have been very successful.
Hudson: I’ve heard both Erik Larsen & Matt Fraction talk about this… where authors will start to get a name for themselves in independent comics, then they move to the big two and loose all that they’ve worked for with their name… because now they just become a part of a franchise. And that’s hurting the industry.
Kevin: I don’t know that that’s true. Erik only has the name he has because of big 2 work, and the same could be argued with Matt. The point is a valid one, but to use the Dave Sim analogy, who’s heard of him that buys big two books on a regular basis? Sure, people on the net yell really loudly, but I bet average comic fan has never heard of him. If he were to do some big 2 work? Sudden influx of fans to this “new” creator. That’s the way it always goes.
Dennis and I are functioning on the plan of “do creator-owned work to get noticed by the big 2 so we can work for them to build enough of a name and a brand so we can go back to doing creator-owned work and make a living at it. ” If i can bypass the big 2 part of that i will, but in the current model of the industry, I don’t think it will happen.
Hudson: I believe the new audience of comics are not coming to Marvel & DC… but new readers are going to the independent books that explore other genres… and one day, those books are going to be outselling Marvel & DC.
Kevin: I don’t think that creator-owned books, as a genre/medium/whatever, will outsell the big 2 anytime soon. I do think that it’s possible to sell more of them, a shit-load more, but i think that the percentages won’t really change. Just the amount of units sold.
Van: I would say that the most significant growth potential lies with indie books and the traditional book publishers that are getting into GNs, but those are also the most risky places as well. All of the big comics that have gained national attention – Persepolis, American Born Chinese, Blankets, Maus, etc. – haven’t come from the big 2, and that’s no coincidence. What will probably happen is you’ll see some more big successes like those, and they’ll further help establish non-big 2 publishers and help them to grow further, and eventually one or two will outstrip Marvel and DC. Heck, some manga is already doing this stateside. But, it’s important to note that indie books and big 2 books operate in such different markets that there’s no real point in comparing or contrasting them.
Kevin: I think that as we get more into a traditional book-seller’s mode, the big 2 will carve a slice of the pie that is the same as the one they currently have in the direct market. What most people don’t realize is that big 2 trades sell WELL in mainstream bookstores. They outsell LCS’s by a landslide. We just don’t have access to those numbers.
3. THE RIGHT TO A FAIR PRICE.
Hudson: Lance’s biggest thing holding him back from reading comics is the cost. The price per minute of enjoyment for comics skyrockets well above any other medium. You could argue that they could be viewed as art books to be enjoyed as a coffee table book, but for the most part, people read for the stories. It’s just not feasible.
Kevin: You’re placing a super-market disposable value on them. which is fine, but we don’t live in a comics world where they’re disposable entertainment. If this were japan and people were throwing them away after scanning them on the train, i’d agree with you. But as a hobbyist/escapist medium of “collecting” your thoughts don’t hold water. it’s all about perceived entertainment value. By your reasoning, 90% of the movies I’ve bought and/or seen are way over priced when my perception of their cost vs. my enjoyment of the product is factored in.
Hudson: But most people can afford maybe one trade a week?
Kevin: Depends, it’s a habit medium. If you’re buying one trade a week, that’s generally a healthy bit of reading for 10-15 bucks. it’s all about perception. If you, Hudson, don’t perceive that as being worth it, then you, Hudson, need to look for material that holds up to your standards. It’s a pop-culture medium. A niche one, but still pop-culture. The thing that you think is mindless pap, i might think is a life-changing read. That’s the beauty of it.
Van: Another point of added value with GNs is that you can re-read them. I know I’m constantly going back to my collection, and I read some books dozens of times. (I also used Frank Miller’s 300 as a portable drawing board when I was breaking down my graphic novel.) All the same, I would like to see price points come lower, and it’s because of the exact point you brought up, Kevin. Costs are OK now because comics have become a niche entertainment. But, as they try to expand (which I view as crucial to their sustained success), they need to become accessible to casual readers. That won’t happen when those readers have to drop a substantial amount of money for a relatively small book. How you lower prices, though, is a whole ‘nother issue.
Kevin: I don’t think we’re at too high of a price point for anything right now. People will pay for it if they want it. We just need more people to want it.
Van: I disagree, although it may have a lot to do with me being pretty conservative financially. I think people will pay for something if they want it, but the logic of the free market is they’ll also pay what they think it’s worth. Right now, the cost of comics in my mind is prohibitive (not by a lot) to casual readers, and I hear plenty of complaints or surprise when people learn how much comics cost.
Hudson: And monthlies are a non-issue here, in my experience new readers are not interested in monthly books, only trades
Kevin: That’s an industry problem and not a reader problem. If the singles were more… readily available across the board you wouldn’t have that caveat at all. Trades are “generally” more available, and re-stocked. plus, again, perceived value. If you don’t hold any stock in the singles, then the person you’re trying to get onto them won’t either. that’s been a hard lesson for me to learn. I still believe in the trades as the final medium, but I have learned that the death of the single issue is killing this industry before it has a chance to adapt. Plus, I’ve come around to the view point that comics should be like anything else, you should be able to get them in whatever format you choose.
Hudson: I certainly don’t want singles to disappear. I think it’s a viable form of delivery (and a needed one, as you point out). But I think it’s rare for NEW readers to start on monthly issues.
Van: If single issues are going to survive, plain and simple, the industry needs to develop some new distribution methods, which, really, means going back to old methods. I know so many people (myself included) who grew up reading comics by buying issues in the grocery store or drug store. And it’s saddening to think of all the kids who don’t have that access now, because I’m sure not seeing them in the shop on Wednesdays. For older readers who are trying to get into comics, my experience has been that a single issue just isn’t enough to gain their interest. I’ve tried starting people on issues and on trades/GNs, and not a single one of them has kept up with the single issues.
Hudson: So, how should publishers try and cut costs? Is it even possible to cut costs with such small readership?
Kevin: A lot of a publishers cost, in my opinion, is wasted time. Time costs money and i think a lot of publishers waste a lot of time. Don’t solicit until the book is 1/3 or 1/2 done. Don’t spread too thin too fast. Don’t put out more than you can afford to at one time. Don’t launch a line, launch a book. Don’t launch a book, launch a creator. don’t do more promotion to the audience than you do to the retailer. Put out only good books. Work only with people who’re reliable.
Van: The big way to lower prices, and more of a challenge, is to greatly expand the scope of the industry. If you’re selling millions of books a month, you can sell them more cheaply. I don’t know that comics can ever get back to that point, but they should strive to grow beyond their current tiny market, especially with public interest so high.
Hudson: I think TokyoPop has a fantastic pricing model in place… every book is roughly the same number of pages, it’s black and white and retails for $9.99. I do think that new readers are more apt to buy a color book though. But what about Marvel’s digest-size books that are full color trades at a $7.99 cover price or Image’s slim line, where it’s less pages per comic book, same amount of story, and a $1.99 cover price? Although, according to Fraction, this hasn’t helped the sales of Casanova at all… so who knows.
Kevin: The price point isn’t an issue as much as people want to think it is. Again it’s all about perceived value. If Cass was a 2.99 book, it would sell the same, in my opinion. It’s critically well thought of and all the right people say it’s great every time one comes out. but that doesn’t help the sales go up. If anything they just hover.
If you price something lower that looks like it should cost more, then the perceived value goes down. People wonder what’s wrong with it, they wonder why it’s lower than the other books they buy.
Van: Again, I think these issues all stem from comic book buyers being more collectors than fans. I, for one, am infinitely more likely to buy something that’s cheaper.
And that’s that. Thanks Van and Kevin for the great conversation!