Here’s the skinny on the future: the comic book as we know it is dead.
Comics have been going for close to 70 years now on more or less the
same format. Where it changed, it shrunk in height, width and page
count. For 30 years, it held the same price point – 10¢ – and since that
the price has mushroomed while the volume of content has stagnated.
(Marvel brought story length down to 17 pages out of 32 by the end of
the 70s, only to be forced to bring it back up to 22 pages just so every
Marvel comic wouldn’t look like THE DIRECT MARKETER
GAZETTE.) Now it’s rare to find a comic priced under $2.50/issue, in
most cases for essentially the same material you could buy for 12¢ in
A funny thing became apparent as the
price rose: the general audience will
tolerate prices up to $1.99. There’s
some psychological reaction to a $2+
price tag that causes the buyer to
believe it’s just no longer worth it. It’s
not surprising that the readership of the
standard comic book curved off as the
average price rose above that point. It’s
a pretty good bet prices will continue to
rise. It’s a pretty good bet readership will continue to drop.
Unnaturally bolstered for a time by the speculator market, publishers
chose to ignore this. The problem with speculator markets is they’re
dependent on speculators holding onto the investment. As soon as the
cashouts start, secondary market prices deflate like the Hindenberg and
the market collapses, as those who stocked up on Beanie Babies can
now verify. Left with only the core audience to buy comic books, we
entered into what is now fondly referred to as The Crash.
I view it as the future catching up with us.
The future was spelled out a long time ago now, in faltering steps
extending from Gil Kane’s HIS NAME IS… SAVAGE and Bill Spicer’s
brilliant fanzine GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE through DARK
KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN and on through now scores of
trade paperback collections. Longer forms, higher price points, better
value for money.
In not too long, we’ll look back on the 90s as the time when comics
shifted from a magazine-based economy to a book-based economy. As
the comic book has collapsed, the popularity of the trade paperback
has grown, and it has a lot of people spooked. TPBs can stay available
for years at a time – witness the endless printings of DARK KNIGHT
RETURNS, which has sold regularly for 15 years – which requires
backstock, a concept alien to publishers who think in terms of
periodicals that go out and vanish in a month. The direct market fed
publishers money very quickly while it was strong, while books require
more risk and patience. Comics dealers don’t like them, as they erode
back issue values – why pay $10/issue for a six issue story arc collected
in a $15.95 tpb? – and many collectors don’t like them for the same
reason. Distributors I’m not sure about. Many of the talent aren’t going
to like them either.
Readers seem to like them. Not just comic book readers but book
readers who don’t read comics and can’t stand the form.
And why not? What would you rather
do: read a story issue by issue over six
months, buy a comic for six months
and save them until the set’s complete
to read them, or buy a collection and
sit down to read the whole story? For
years, the problem with true graphic
novels – not the 44-66 page imposter
we got used to in the 80s – was the
cost of producing stories 150-300+
pages in length, and the TPB gives us
a way around that.
The future of the comic book as we know it is to be a loss leader for
the trade paperback.
“Loss leader” is a grocer’s term, meaning to take a loss on an advertised
item, hoping to bring into the store customers who will then spend
enough on other items to make up for the loss. For the comics industry,
the loss leader would mean something different: you do not produce the
standard comic book to make money off it.
Comics will be published not to earn a profit but to break even, paying
for creative costs and generating word of mouth for the series. In other
words, they’ll be ads for themselves. Profits will come from sales of the TPB.
If all this sounds like pie in the sky, look how DC and Dark Horse have
subtly been shifting gears over the past few years. Much of Dark
Horse’s output has been reprinted in TPBs. Vertigo became aware of
the commercial possibilities of TPBs when SANDMAN hit, and, given
the number of properties reprinted in the format, it’s hard to think the
line’s emphasis on limited series over ongoing series isn’t connected to
it, just as it’s easy to understand the thinking behind story arcs in DCU
books, particularly in the Superman and Batman titles, where arcs are
so regularly collected. TRANSMETROPOLITAN TPB sales have
been so good as to pretty much guarantee continued publication of the
monthly title, while stories in PREACHER, INVISIBLES and other
titles are pretty much earmarked for TPB treatment before comics
publication. Go into Barnes & Noble or Borders or Tower Books and
check the variety of TPBs there. It’s the quiet revolution going on in the
As with all revolutions, there are some painful downsides. We’re looking at some big changes in the business.
At minimum, the trade paperback market seems to resist attempts to
flood the market. “Graphic novels” were the hot ticket of the 80s, yet
the day came when Marvel declared the graphic novel dead. Believing
the format and not the content is what sold the books (publishers tend
to focus on things they can control, like format, over things they can’t
control or replicate, like talent), they tossed out masses of ill-conceived
tripe and then grumbled when people stopped paying attention. TPBs
appear to be a somewhat different beast; if the comics that generate
them don’t get buzz, the TPBs flatline, making quality a virtual
Superheroes tend not to do well in TPB, meaning the odds are
publishers will slowly be forced to either de-emphasize the superhero or
recast him in a more intelligent milieu, as James Robinson did with
STARMAN. Other genres, like horror, science fiction and crime, stand
a much better chance of survival in TBP form than in comics form. And
the series most successfully collected in trade paperback seem to be
those that put a strong emphasis on storytelling, an art all but lost in
superhero comics. If Jack Kirby and Neal Adams were an explosion in
the 60s that shattered the stiff artistic restraints of prior comics, the last
reverberations of that explosion died out in the Image era, where art
dominated story to such an extent the latter was all but irrelevant.
While the “art for art’s sake” comics are falling by the wayside now, the
titles most successful in trade paperback seem to be story driven. We
have to reconfigure how we think of these things. As much as Garth
Ennis is responsible for PREACHER, how easily it could fall apart
without Steve Dillon’s spacious, clean, straightforward artwork.
Eschewing fancy pyrotechnics, Dillon’s art is in total service to the story,
but it’s an error to view it as subservient to the story. As much as Ennis’
writing, Dillon’s art is the story, and that’s how we have to view good
work from now on: as the collaboration it is. It is, as much as anything,
a movie on paper, and a lot of its general appeal comes from its ability
to invoke the common and comfortable experience of a movie, where
most comics don’t.
The trade paperback represents a permanence for the business as the periodical represented transience. As
it takes over the market, more product will be designed with the trade paperback as the long term goal
(Warren Ellis is already designing most of his work with that in mind).
Suddenly the ongoing series doesn’t make sense anymore (if it ever
made sense, but that’s grist for a future column), and along with the rise
of the trade paperback, the mini-series has been making a quiet
comeback. With publishers converting failed ongoing series into
retroactive mini-series at an alarming rate now, the limited series is the
only periodical form that makes sense for them anymore.
So finally quality counts for something in comics, and the TPB format
will live or die on quality. It’s not out of the question that this will result
in considerably fewer comics being published, with more stringent
standards returning to the field, and more breadth of material. And a lot
of people out of work, and a lot of marginal work and characters falling
by the wayside. We might even lose a lot of hardcore fans, but we’re
losing them anyway. It’s not like the trade paperback is an option
anymore. It’s the option.
Here comes the future.