I talk a lot about what “needs” to change in comics. Those magic, idealistic ideas that “if only they would change this one thing” then the entire world would embrace comics. I don’t think I have any answers that are unique. I’m sure every thought I’ve had about it has already been explored by everyone from my fellow bloggers to the presidents of Marvel & DC. But it’s a subject that I enjoy talking about. My love of comics and background in marketing lends itself to “trying to solving the problem” that is comics. And I hope to move soon from just “talking about the problems” to “testing the solutions” as I get further into the industry.
But there are many great, amazing things about the comics industry and with all this talk of problem solving, I wanted to take a break to talk about the things that don’t need to be fixed.
I recently hosted an internet discussion on the subject with Josh Flanagan (iFanboy), Paul Montgomery (Fuzzy Typewriter), Chris Neseman (Around Comics), Angela Paman (Comic Addiction), and Ron Richards (iFanboy)) where we discussed the 3 areas that I feel the comics industry gets right:
1. A SENSE OF COMMUNITY.
I’ve been reading comics on and off for over 15 years now… more seriously over the past 2 years. And lately, I’ve become a part of the comics online community. There is an honesty and an odd mix of humility and pride to comic readers that I haven’t found anywhere else. It is a group of people proud of their interests, brought together by those interest, but that connect over personalities.
Online forums, comic conventions (from the 100,000+ in attendance San Diego ComicCon to smaller indie cons such as Alternative Press Expo), blogs, & podcasts all bring this community together and gives everyone an equal voice.
What is it about comics that draws people, not only to the books themselves, but to the community surrounding it?
Angela: I think it’s because the community gives a common ground to talk about comics because more or less there isn’t anywhere else really to talk about them.
Ron: I think that it’s based around the shared experience of comics. Be it going to the comic shop and talking to the staff there or other comics fans, or going to cons and talking to creators and other fans, or just going online and talking on message boards. There is something deep in the comics experience that is highlighted by not only reading and enjoying comics, but by talking about them to other people who enjoy them.
Chris: Comics are like any other niche interest. When you find other people that have a similar interest in something outside of the mainstream there is an instant connection between them.
Josh: And really, comic books are fun, but that fun is magnified multiple times by sharing it with others, whether that’s being excited about comics, or even having spirited arguments about the events in comics. Having people around who care about comics like you do just make them that much better.
Paul: Perhaps the niche nature of this art form and this hobby necessitates a level of care and appreciation for contributions made by peers. Perhaps it’s a mentality of us all being in this together. We head to the shop each week to support the retailers and often to bond over favorite titles. It’s maybe a not-so-secret society in the modern geek-friendly culture, but it’s still our underground. Our catacombs. We know what the other guy doesn’t, that some of the best storytelling and some of the gutsiest experimentation is going on in the funny books. So, that’s a clubhouse situation. That’s a knowing nod to the stranger on the subway reading a copy of Scalped.
All of you host podcasts, how did you get involved in that? What drew you to that form of communication?
Chris: We like to hang out, drink beer and talk about comics. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to broadcast your thoughts and opinions on comics, and it’s fun.
Ron: iFanboy got into podcasting simply because we were curious. We had been doing the site for a few years and podcasting emerged in 2004/2005 and we were listening to the early first podcasts and really enjoyed them. Around 2005, we were talking about podcasts and I looked into how to do them, and found that it wasn’t that difficult, so to satiate our curiosity, we just started doing it. We didn’t know what to expect and were shocked that people were listening and enjoying it. It’s been such a fantastic experience, and we’re super lucky to be podcasting for almost 3 years now…
Josh: It’s funny, because it’s much easier to get my point of view and personality across on a podcast than I ever did in writing. For some, it’s too much chance that you’re going to say something wrong, or you can’t edit yourself, but for me, that’s part of the fun. You’ve got to constantly be interesting, and have something interesting to say. If you’re writing, you can edit and take your time. But even though the audio shows aren’t “live” perse, what you hear is mostly what you get. Unless it goes horribly wrong. The video shows were just a logical extension of that, and I didn’t expect to like them as much as I did, but it makes sense, because by having someone actually see you talking, you can communicate that much better. Plus, it’s a visual medium, so you get to see the actual books we’re talking about. It’s a lot of fun really. And that’s outweighed the hard work so far.
Paul: I’ve been messing around with audio recording ever since I got my first computer in high school. In fact, the hobby probably predates that, going back to Home Alone II and the TalkBoy recorder. I liked creating characters through voice. I used minimal equipment and played every role in those digital radio dramas. I could start and finish these projects by myself, and that felt like a big accomplishment. So when podcasting gained popularity, I was thrilled to see a new venue for sharing audio projects. I began listening to several shows, most notably iFanboy’s Pick of the Week. iFanboy’s web presence includes a discussion forum, and the networking opportunities and support system I found in that community provided all the guidance and all the confidence I needed to attempt Fuzzy Typewriter. That community continues to be the most fertile ground for feedback and development for FT and the bulk of my creative projects.
Angela: While I was contributing for Comic Addiction, Chris Partin, editor-in-chief of comicaddiction.com, started doing a podcast. He was getting to a point where he wanted to change the format and asked the people who contributed to the site if they were interested in doing a podcast with him. Paul Steven Brown, Robert Tacopina, Antony Ellis and myself answered his call and the rest was history.
What drew me to the form of communication is the fact of its versatility. Not to mention that it is free. The fact that someone can speak up and say their opinion without having anyone suppress them is a very good thing in today’s society.
Paul: Coming from more of a storytelling rather than a journalistic background, I see podcasting as an inexpensive outlet for dramatic fiction. But it’s also a great way of reaching a wide audience. Having found a co-host in Wormwood’s Dave Accampo, I’ve also started experimenting with more academic discussions of storytelling and pop culture. I’m particularly drawn to this communicative form because it’s built around a DIY model. Most podcasts are produced out of sheer enthusiasm and passion for the subjects they discuss. I’ve met so many dedicated and creative podcasters in the past year and everyone rallies together to publish the best shows possible.
Has it changed your perspective going from someone who reads about comics to someone who talks about them?
Ron: I don’t think its changed my perspective *that* much. If anything, it’s made me get a bit more intelligent about my criticisms about comics. If I don’t like something and talk about it on the podcast, it’s not enough to say “bah, it sucks.” Why does it suck? What is it that I don’t like specifically? It’s this added critical eye that I’ve had to work on, but ultimately, my enjoyment of books or dislike of them is the same, regardless of where I talk about them.
Angela: It has changed to where I try to be as objective as possible when reviewing something. As much as possible I try to open myself to reading things that I don’t usually pick up on a regular basis. For example, I am not going to give a bad review just because I didn’t suit my standard of reading comics. I’m going to review the book on whether or not the book met its objective of what it had to do as an issue.
Chris: It’s changed my basic knowledge base more than anything. When you’re a fan of something for 20+ years you have a tendency to think you know more about something than you actually do. Our early episodes are laughable in how much I thought I knew and really had no idea about. In the two and a half years of doing the show I feel like I’ve forced myself to learn more about the medium and the industry than I did in the prior 20 years. This is mostly due to the fact that we want to be able to back up our thoughts on the show and speak intelligently about whatever subject we’re discussing. Learning about EC, pre-crisis DC and about various veteran creators has been a fantastic journey. Just now I’m starting to understand that between the amount of content being produced today and the huge amount of comics history, I’ll never know it all. And that’s OK. I’ll always have new and undiscovered material to look for.
Technology and the internet seems to have brought together legions of readers who would normally have no interaction with each other. How is this changing the industry? Do you think this is a key to growing the industry?
Angela: Technology and the Internet go hand in hand. They provide the comic industry with updated news and give platforms where people can interact with one another.
Ron: Technology has definitely helped fans of comics come together on sites like iFanboy.com and others out there. I think on one hand, it’s fantastic and definitely great for the industry, but on the other hand, I think it can be a bit dangerous in that it can be limiting and cause the industry to, while connecting people wordwide, become a bit more inclusive and harder to approach for new fans. The fact that there is a ton of information and communities around sites and podcasts, but I worry about the negative stereotype of comic books stores being inaccessible to new readers being applied to the use of technology. But ultimately, I think it’s a great thing…
Paul: I think there’s a prevailing stereotype that comic readers are aloof, socially awkward mole people who only venture out of the basement to pick up their weekly books or wait in line for the next franchise film. But if my experience is any indication, a lot of comic readers are thrilled to discuss their favorite books on an intelligent level and to collaborate with like-minded people. The internet has opened up a new venue for interaction. Whether it’s through a discussion forum or a creative collaboration through e-mail. And not a day goes by where there isn’t some kind of discussion about a convention meet up.
The industry is evolving in more ways than can be fully realized in the wake of all this social networking. I do think that it’s mostly positive because the lines of communication are open and new talent is afforded increased visibility. New books are also privy to increased attention, opening up the potential for new readers and better sales.
Josh: It’s not that comic book readers are necessarily loners or outcasts, but it is that they’re rare. There aren’t a lot of us, so there’s a good chance you don’t know or live near anyone to talk about comics with. The internet changed all that. Thanks to podcasts and message boards, people suddenly have comic book friends when they didn’t before, and of course, that makes you want to read more comic books.
I think, in a way, it’s been a real boon to the publishing industry, and I’m not sure they know it. It’s solidified their audience. We’ve had lots of people tell us they’ve come back to comics because of our show, and things like that keep them coming back, which is pretty cool. Smart creators and publishers know that there’s value in these shows, and they’re run by dedicated people who want the best for comics.
Going forward, the key will be getting more people to know about all this supplemental free content out there for the taking. Also, as the field of podcasters grow, the competition will become more fierce, because creators and publishers will have to choose where they spend their time and energy. So to get noticed, people will have to do a good job.
Chris: I don’t know how much it’s actually “changing” the industry. I think the sales impact is there, but to what extent I don’t think we can judge. Independent comics have the most to gain through internet marketing and message board “word of mouth”, but I think we may overvalue the impact of what is probably much much less than half of the active comics readers.
One very tangible impact is how new creators are using the internet to break-in to the industry. Writers like Gail Simone and Matt Fraction both started as internet writers.
Do I think it’s a key to growing the industry? Of course, but it’s only one part. The impact of movies and TV are probably more effective as a driver to the source material than internet communities if you’re thinking of ways to grow your market.
2. ACCESS TO CREATORS.
I’ve been involved in both the movie & music industries, and I think it’s safe to say that in no other industry will you find creators who are more willing to converse with you, give advice, or lend a helping hand more-so than comics. In comics, I’ve felt embraced by a number of creators who are more than willing to not just acknowledge me, but genuinely want to help.
Why do you think so many comics creators are willing to not only depart wisdom, but go above and beyond to help young creators?
Paul: You’d think that such a small industry would inspire a certain cutthroatedness, but my experience in the comics community has been extremely positive. It’s hard to publish a comic, but there are venues open to those willing to put in the work. And given the support system inherent in the fan community and the opportunities afforded us on the internet, the line between reader and creator is getting thinner. There are rock stars and vets, of course, but by and large, the guy or girl on the other side of the table in artist alley is only one or two lucky breaks removed from you. Sophomores and seniors.
Josh: This was one of the best things I ever discovered about comics. They guys who make them are right there. They’re a convention or an email away. Not good for potential stalkers, but excellent for polite fans. Personally, I never know what to say to anyone outside of my show, so I never took as much advantage of this as I probably could have. But, in the media as we know it today, comic creators must be the most accessible sources of talent we have. Seriously, ask Dan Slott to come over to your house, and he probably will. Getting him to leave though….
Ron: Most creators I’ve met are terribly thankful for their success and their spot in the industry. I think alot of creators see a bit of themselves in young creators and therefore like to provide advice and to help out up and comers. This is speculation, but perhaps one creator was helped out by another creator, and therefore they want to keep the cycle of giving back going.
Chris: In my limited experience, comics creators are also comics fans. They enjoy good comics, and they love seeing the medium grow and change. That and I’ve found that comics creators are really good people. We’ve talked to A LOT of people in the last two years, and I can honestly say I haven’t had one bad experience with any creator.
I would also like to challenge readers to pay attention to what younger creators are being helped along by established writers, and check out their work. Brian Reed, Matt Fraction and Josh Dysart are just three people that you should have your eye one.
As the industry grows, do you think this is something that will disappear?
Ron: I really hope not, and if the past few years of growth are any indication, I don’t think it will disappear. As the industry grows, its also getting smaller in some ways (sadly) and I think the publishers and creators understand that their relationship with fans is very important.
Chris: No. Because I don’t think the industry is growing. Maybe bulging a little, but it’s not like 2 Million people are buying X-Men or anything. I think comics are actually settling into a comfortable zone. There’s a rabid yet manageable fanbase of comics readers, and the movie and TV industry is seeing the value of comics as a sort of Lab to develop concepts. I actually enjoy the fact that comics are a niche entertainment.
Josh: Going forward, the big names are getting bigger though. You can see it at conventions. Try getting 5-10 minutes with Geoff Johns, and you’re in for a struggle. But overall, that’s a great thing. This pseudo celebrity only makes comics more attractive to the rest of the media. They thrive on notoriety and celebrity, so if we have that as well as great content, there’s a better chance comics will get more coverage, and have a chance to show its stuff. If that leads to more people reading, then I’m thrilled.
3. AN INDEPENDENT SPIRIT.
I love the idea that to make a comic book, all you need is pen and paper. Anyone can do it. That kind of independent do-it-yourself spirit is one of the things that makes comic so great. I liken the comics industry to an underground music scene.
On the one end you have me at age 14 spending hours upon hours writing and drawing my own comics in my room that no one will ever see, and on the other end, you’ve got Joss Whedon writing an X-Men comic for Marvel. And everything in-between. And it’s in that in-between area where the real creativity happens.
What is it about comics that makes it feel so independent in spirit?
Paul: Well, for one, they aren’t as popular as they should be. And every word in that last sentence was chosen for a reason.
Chris: Because there aren’t very many of us that read comics when you look at the big picture. That’s what makes conventions so fun… and weird. It’s a fantastic experience being in the same building with thousands of other people that wouldn’t think twice about hearing a conversation like “I think Wally is a better Flash than Jay or Barry because…”. Well, there are a lot of Barry and Jay fans out there, so it could get ugly saying that.
Ron: I agree with aspects of the comics industry being like the underground music scene (Which I’ve spent most of my life in..) in that there is a strong Do It Yourself ethic. You have an idea for a comic? great – do it. You can make your own comic book simply by drawing on paper and photocopying it at Kinko’s. The underground music scene has a similar ethic where if you have a band, you don’t sit around waiting for a label to come to you, you just get off your butt and do it. Good talent will rise to the top and then reap the benefits of that talent. But it’s at the end of the day, anybody can do it and be successful if they’re good and work hard at it.
Josh: I feel like comics are stratified. There’s certainly an underground quotient if you want it, but mainstream comics feels a lot like mainstream anything. There’s big money to be had, and the competition is fierce. But the line between indie and mainstream isn’t that big. In fact, I’d say that music is actually becoming more like comics as access to audiences and technology makes it easier to get product out there. A band can become big on the internet or touring, and don’t really need a label. Someone can make comics for a living without ever working for Marvel or DC as well. It’s tough, but it’s done.
Angela: It is independent in spirit because it is a versatile medium. It is one using art to tell a story. That story can have a message or just express one’s emotion.
Anyone with a pen and paper can make and distribute comics. How does this affect the comics industry as a whole? Push creativity? Create a wider or thinner gap between the amateur & professional?
Chris: It effects the comics industry as much as amateur film makers on Youtube effect Hollywood. Take that anyway you want to.
Angela: I think it gives an inspiration for people to be creative. I don’t think it creates a gap between amateur and professional. You don’t even need pen and paper. You can have a computer with some programs and make web comics also.
Josh: If you want to make comics, and you’ve got the chops, you just do it. It doesn’t cost anything. Then you take them to a convention, or put them on the web, and cross your fingers. If it’s good, it’ll catch on somehow. Music pretty much works the same way now, but it’s a bigger field to stand out from, obviously. But I love that the main component in either is just that you have to do the work, and it has to be good. Find the passion, and hope for some luck, and you’re there. You can’t beat that for a fair playing field.
Paul: When compared to filmmaking, I think the affordability of resources for creating a comic make it a much more viable storytelling option for a number of people. But both of these forms require a lot of thought, dedication, and luck (creative and professional relationships + charisma). If you really want it, it’s attainable. There’s a part of me that says every great story will get told regardless of the obstacles. There’s nothing that stop the combination of great idea and great dedication. But it is a very difficult and competitive world and there are a lot of talented people in it. The easier it is to produce and distribute content. If that means an increase in crap, so be it. The quality material will rise to the top.
Ron: Well this is a tough paradox. I’ve a huge believer in the DIY movement, in both music and comics. But as it becomes easier to make comics, the number of people doing it increases and it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise. If there are thousands of creators, it becomes harder to find that next great talent. But I do believe that good talent rises to the top and then from there can be developed by publishers and editors. Its like an inverted pyramid, with everyone doing their thing at the top, and as each level goes lower, the number of creators gets smaller, but the quality goes up. Ultimately it just makes it that much harder for publishers to find good talent, and it makes it harder for creators to get noticed. But as you mentioned, it pushes creativity for those creators and if they really want it, they have to work for it and that hopefully creates better comics.
Do you think there is a certain amount of confidence for young creators to try and “make it” in the comics industry, where the movie or book industry comes off a little too daunting?
Angela: I think today they go hand in hand. You see people from the movie or book industry writing comics and vice versa. I think it is because companies see that they have experience in writing so they hire them. Brad Meltzer was established as a novelist before writing his first comic. Cecil Castellucci always wanted to get into comics and got her break after writing young adult novels.
Chris: It all depends on your definition of “Making it”. Does that mean you want to create for Marvel or DC? Produce your own graphic novel or have an indie success? I don’t think there’s any fast money in comics, and what I’ve found is that most creators fall into the “love of the medium” category when they say why they do it.
Ron: I’m not a creator, so I can’t really put myself in their shoes, but I know alot of people who are working at making comics, and I don’t think its any easier to make it in comics than it is to make it in movies, music or books. In all mediums there is an system in place and a creator needs to, at the same time, hone their craft and learn that system. The single biggest piece of advice that I’ve heard from professionals across all of those industries is simple, “Don’t be annoying. Don’t be a jerk” If you can figure out how to get your foot in the door, be as polite as possible and give someone who’s “higher” than you a reason to like or respect you and hopefuly they’ll want to help you. I don’t think that’s different in comics or movies or books. It just takes alot of hard work, both creatively and in developing relationships. No one is going to come to you to put out your comic or book or movie. You have to go to them and show them that they absolutely have to be in business with you.
Thanks to Angela, Chris, Josh, Paul & Ron for the great discussion and to YOU for choosing to take the journey with us! Please comment below with your own “things the comics industry gets right.