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Issue #284

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #284

A couple interesting developments coming out of last weekend’s NYC convention. (No, I don’t mean WORLD WAR HULK details.) Nothing exactly seismic; it’s more like continuing to track cruise missiles that you’ve known for a long time are coming your way, but for some reason you’re still pondering the best response.

First there was my old pal (and one of the better comics market analysts) Milton Griepp‘s announcement that graphic novels (presumably including trade paperback collections, since NARUTO dominates the list and a 300 trade in conjunction with the apparently widely anticipated imminent film is currently very hot) now outsell standard comic books. (Dirk Deppey has pretty good quick coverage of this if you scroll down to his listing for Monday this week, including a few unanswered questions I’d also like to see answered.) I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised by this, since anyone could have seen it coming quite a few miles off, like ten years ago. Considering the creative and financial possibilities of the graphic novel, you’d think the American comics business would have put a lot of thought into embracing and utilizing them a lot sooner than this instead of, even as more and more product and profit estimates shifting toward the book trade as ultimate outcome, muttering in anger and semi-panic like Republicans bemoaning calculations that Latinos will eventually outnumber Anglos in America and oh won’t that have terrible consequences for our civilization!

Well, time to get used to it. Metaphorically, that day is now, esse.

The other interesting development, not widely noted that I’ve come across, was Top Cow‘s announcement that it would soon start selling comics electronically online for $2.99, simultaneous with in-store sales. The following day, the plan was corrected. This time it was Top Cow’s back catalog that would be sold, not current issues. The suggestion left by both the original announcement and the correction was that the company is trying hard to develop an electronic market while appeasing the current base of comics retailers, though it may have been exactly as Top Cow portrayed it, an inaccurate announcement and a correction. Certainly retailers have screaming “unfair competition” before when a publisher has tried to move out of their circle of influence. Many of them don’t even like the idea of companies offering subscriptions (traditionally, magazine subscriptions cost less than buying an equivalent number of issues from a retailer). So it’s not unreasonable to suspect Top Cow’s initial announcement of a $2.99 price tag was intended to demonstrate that the company wasn’t claiming any advantage from its online sales that retailers didn’t also get, except the immediate gratification of buying and receiving a comic without having to trudge halfway across town to get it. But any advantage is an advantage. Given similar past events, it wouldn’t strain credulity to imagine a number of retailers at the New York show reacting with hostility, prompting the subsequent “correction.”

Or it could be exactly what happened on the face of it.

At any rate, it illustrates a growth problem for the American comics market: comics shops.

I’m not condemning comics shops. I completely understand when retailers criticize things like online sales, or some company cutting a special promotion with Barnes & Noble, and other things that leave them out in the cold. I’m not surprised that many retailers feel besieged. Most publishers and much of the talent feel besieged. That’s natural in siege, and the American comics business has been under siege in one way or another for the last decade. But the “the publishers aren’t being loyal to us, why should we be loyal to them?” response that often comes up is completely wrong.

It’s not about loyalty. It’s about selling comics. Period. Comics retailers shouldn’t be loyal to Marvel or DC or Image or any other publisher. The only parties comics shops need to be loyal to is their customers. And the best they can hope for is that customers are loyal in return. But they can’t reasonably enforce it, and punishing a customer (not that it’s common, but it’s not unheard of either) for shopping elsewhere is pretty much commercial suicide. But loyalty, in the sense of expecting someone else to place your best interests ahead of theirs, is a mug’s game. (In my experience, most people obsessed with loyalty are only obsessed with others being loyal to them, with the reverse being unnecessary since whatever’s in their best interest is automatically in the best interest of others. My advice: when you come across that mindset, run.) I can understand the practicality of publishers working with comics shops and not wanting necessarily to alienate them, but a publisher’s only loyalty is ultimately to his bottom line, however he defines it. The only responsibility a comics shop has to any publisher is to sell the damn comics, and their only responsibility to their customers is to provide them with comics they want to buy. It’s cut and dried. Loyalty doesn’t enter into it. To the extent anyone’s rewarded for loyalty – customer loyalty’s what car companies call it – that too is just a marketing ploy. Possibly a sincere and wholehearted one, but that doesn’t change the fact. The ultimate goal of that kind of reward is to convince someone to spend more money, or earn it.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, the comics shop was a response – a good one – to a set of historical circumstances that otherwise could have wiped out the business altogether. (Not that some would have seen that as a bad thing; hi, Gary!) Those circumstances no longer apply. On the other hand, there’s no need to cut comics shops loose. Many are very progressive and innovative, and work hard to meet new challenges, and they’re valuable partners. Part of the problem is that a lot of comics shops have been, quite literally, the only game in town (and often for quite a few surrounding towns) and the experience of head-on competition, particularly from usually more accessible general bookstores and from sexier new outlets like The Internet, is something new for many of them.

The bookstore’s the most immediate competitor for comics shops, and many bookstores do a better job of stocking graphic novels than many comics shops do. Standard comics may be barely an issue in bookstores but, if Milton’s figures are accurate, they no longer constitute a competitive edge. They’re finally, obviously, on their downslide, even though we’ve all really known they are for years. Their economics are shaky. Few standard comics manage to sneak past recouping their cost anymore, and many aren’t even that successful, but success for this business now has a much longer measure than the monthly statement, and proportionately greater risk. Doubtless if Milton has noticed graphic novels/trade paperbacks are the main profit center for the business now, most publishers have as well, and you can bet that’s the bottom line they’re looking at now, regardless of how public they’re being about it.

The comics reader is the big obstacle to developing trade paperbacks. At this point, the most logical method for most publishers is to publish a mini-series in standard comics (only Marvel and DC can really afford to publish continuing series for any length of time) then collect the mini-series into a trade paperback. But readers, and not unreasonably, have increasingly rejected the mini-series, for commercial, not aesthetic, reasons. Comics and trade paperbacks are redundant, trade paperbacks frequently have material not published in the original comics, and while monthly comics used to have readers rushing to the stands to grab the next issue to find out what happens next – something Marvel built its whole empire on – the trade paperback has largely been training them to wait instead for the trade paperback. As a result, the standard comic has become the province of either the hardest of the hardcore fan – and there seems to be attrition there every month as more of them adapt to the new world – or the collector/speculator gambling on eventual value based on scarcity. (Not surprisingly, these were the original core markets of the comics shops, and, for many comics shops, their severely dwindled ranks are the main remaining customers.) Operations like Vertigo have demonstrated how sales of series or mini-series are no longer accurate yardsticks of trade potential; many series are now being published for eventual trade collection with nearly complete disregard for the comics sales figures, and paying off.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see smaller publishers abandon standard comics altogether over the next couple years. Not that most comics shops would mind, since the vast majority of them don’t make any money off smaller publishers anyway but feel some responsibility to stock their material. The problem with publishing straight to graphic novel is generating advance word and a structure that will at least absorb some of the creative costs. But I know several publishers who believe the means for that exist right now, and it’s called the Internet. Which is the real threat to the comics shop, at least the ones that continue to rely mainly on standard comics.

Not that online comics are anything new, which is why it makes perfect sense for Top Cow to want a piece of that market, though (as many computer software firms have found) it may not be conducive to pay-to-play schemes. Certainly if you clip the cost of paper, printing and distribution off, standard cover price is way more than what a publisher should be asking, though other expenses like server space and bandwidth cost have to be figured in. In fact, about the only argument for pricing an online comic equal to its printed version is so retailers aren’t working at a disadvantage.

But the argument from the comics hardcore is that they aren’t. The standard theory – more a presumption, really – goes that true fans will never really be satisfied with online comics, that comics aren’t simply the pictures and stories they’re composed of but also the smell and feel of the paper, the sound of physical pages turning, the whole sensual experience (and online comics moot the whole concept of speculating, since there’s nothing to speculate on, as theoretically anyone in possession of an electronic version of a comic can make an unlimited supply of physical copies if that’s their inclination). But that turns out to be romantic rubbish, easily disproved by a little thing call the bit torrent. We may want to judge readers by whether they read physical comics, but thousands are now opting for keeping up with their favorite titles via scanned electronic versions instead: free (if blatantly illegal; I’m not saying it’s right but there’s no denying it’s happening, and in droves), much more easily accessible (no need even to leave home to keep up), and less annoying in the long run, since there is no real overlap with any trade collections that might appear. The trade paperbacks are now where the sensual paper fix comes in, with none of the grief of buying once only to find you’re being expected to buy twice.

It’s not surprising that companies like Top Cow are trying to get a piece of this. Other companies are going a step further, more in keeping with the “free” ethos of the Internet, of a business model that begins with giving away their comics on the Internet, maybe with some revenue support via banner ads and promotion of product they already have for sale online or at physical stories, using that to support the creative and production costs, and making their money on the eventual trade collection, which can run to any agreeable size and be marketed as an original graphic novel. (Also opening up those “let the story/segment be as long or short as it needs to be” possibilities I called for a few weeks ago.) For those used to the standard way of doing things, this may seem pie-in-the-sky, but given the un(anti?-)profitability of most print comics, it actually represents significant savings for the small publisher and gives his material considerably more time and likelihood of gaining a core audience and word of mouth. Of course, the trick is to produce material that people will want in attractively produced hardcopies when it’s completed, but that has always been the trick.

But, again, none of this is very helpful to the comics shop, and its understandable that they might be inclined to fight any changes that furthers this movement, much as the telecoms are doing what they can to kill wifi in its crib via cutting restrictive deals with governments and wifi is ultimately a technology that can kill off the telephone like the telephone killed the telegraph and telegraph killed the Pony Express. That certainly seems to be the road comics shops as a whole (again, far from all of them) have generally gone when faced with changes in the past, which has really only served to narrow the general audience for comics. (The counter-argument is that there was no general audience for comics, but that was more like a self-fulfilling prophecy.) The cold hard fact is that there are a lot of changes going on right now, and everyone, from publisher to talent to distributor to retailer, is facing a lot of painful adaptation. The challenge now isn’t to inhibit that adaptation but to see what each of us can do to ease the transition for the other elements of the business, because there’s a mountain of money to be made on the other side of it. (The interest is comics is there, it just might not be interest in comics as we’ve known them.) While some sectors of the comics business might ultimately not be able to make the transition – we won’t know until be try, and if everyone were up to technological snuff, we could, say, theoretically have a system where, say, retailers keep stores of Top Cow back issue pdfs on local computer and sell them on disk to their customers, splitting the profit with the company – but at least trying to bring everyone along isn’t charity but enlightened self-interest, at least until they prove no longer tenable rather than simply recalcitrant.

And if they simply refuse to join in, well… there are limits to how much anyone can be expected to do. But change isn’t coming, it’s here, and adjustment is no longer an option but a necessity, and nostalgia be damned.

Notes from under the floorboard:

Hmm… that turned out a lot longer than I’d planned when I started…

That’s how CIVIL WAR ends? This is why people should really figure out how their stories will end before they start writing them. In professional wrestling there’s a concept called burying a character, meaning either having him lose badly without proper setup or reason to an opponent with no stature or credibility, or he’s given such contradictory or moronic things to do and say that even the thin veneer of believability required in pro wrestling is unsustainable. Whoever’s writing the CAPTAIN AMERICA book after this should get a combat pay bonus, because that character just got buried something fierce… (Speaking of burying characters and as something of a Punisher expert, his goofy newfound hero worship smacks a bit of desperation…) (And anyone who hasn’t seen it should check out the unauthorized alternative ending of CIVIL WAR here. You’ll swear Mark Millar himself wrote it, just without all the plot squad input…)

Wait a minute! “Plot squad.” I like that. A great term for all these recent comics concocted by committee instead of just letting the damn writers write. Companies should start using it in place of writer names. (I know that’s how they do it in TV, but does Mark Millar really need a dozen guys tossing bits at him? Does Greg Rucka?) The plot squad. Feel free to use it.

Saw both of last year’s “magic” films recently – THE ILLUSIONIST and THE PRESTIGE – and I’m glad I saw the former first, because following the far superior latter film I might not have been able to sit through it at all. Both are set around the turn of the 19th century, both involve magicians performing puzzling illusions, both intersect with real world cultures of the time, but Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE, about two stage magicians rising to prominence in London while conducting an often violent feud with each other prompted by personal pain, professional jealousy and revenge, is so much better, Nolan’s best picture since MEMENTO by far. It’s practically alive with life and mystery, dangling tantalizing clues in virtually every shot and every breath, and, unlike THE ILLUSIONIST, ultimately doesn’t cheat on any of its promises. Yes, you do find out how the magicians performed their tricks, and it works both as a character piece about the nature of true obsession and as a psychological scifi-horror story. THE ILLUSIONIST, on the other hand, is a little slice of life drama set in fin-de-siecle Austria, with delusions of political import; despite really good performances from Paul Giamatti and the very underrated Rufus Sewell, it’s ultimately a drab little affair, made more drab by the central figure played by Edward Norton, formerly about our most electric performer but now seemingly drawn exclusively to morose parts. It’s not helped by leaving the most spectacular tricks in the film totally unexplained, as if they were never intended to be more than window dressing. THE PRESTIGE unfolds like a savagely beautiful, complicated bloom. THE ILLUSIONIST sits there like a rock.

I see James Cameron has a new documentary coming out (he produced it) claiming that the bodies of Jesus, his earthly parents, two brothers, his wife Mary (Magdalene?) and their son were found in a buried ancient tomb in Jerusalem 20 years ago. I’m sure the whole of Christianity is shaking. DNA testing has supposedly been done; while there’s no way of proving it’s the Jesus (if, in fact, it’s any Jesus at all), DNA could certainly establish who in the tomb is related to whom, and in what way, and while all the names involved (Joseph, Mary, Judah, Matthew, etc.) were commonplace in the Judea of the day, the odds are a little narrower that they’d all appear in exactly the right family order. Still, plenty of room for skepticism there. While I doubt Christianity will exactly be trembling over the outcome, early responses from the influential faithful have been fairly predictable. While universally calling Cameron’s claims rubbish, one has suggested that if Jesus were resurrected once, he could easily have been resurrected twice (I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, and it still seems a pretty striking divergence from the Biblical story of Jesus, if you can narrow it down to one), while others have basically taken the stance that if the legend becomes truth, print the legend. Ah, the wonders of faith…

Congratulations to JM Ringuet, the first to correctly identify the theme of last week’s Comics Cover Challenge as “wings.” Reward him: go visit his blog right now!

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. Initially I was going to skip this week’s hidden clue, but today’s is probably difficult enough that you’ll need one. Then again, you’ve surprised me before…

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Me, it’s late, I’m tired and I have pitches to finish, so I’m packing it in for now…

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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